Of Art and Cultural Revolution
On the fiftieth anniversary of the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, ASHLEY RIVENBARK searches around Shanghai and rediscovers the legacies of the Cultural Revolution through poster art.
This article was originally published by China Hands Magazine.
Deep in the tunnel of Shanghai’s West Nanjing Road subway station, a neat display lined the bustling walkway. Most people rushed by, not giving the exhibit a second glance. Yet the bright yellow and red block lettering plastered across the walls immediately caught my attention. It read: “Red Culture Enters the Subway: Commemorating the 95th Anniversary of the Founding of the Communist Party of China.”
Just as the subway serves as the city’s primary blood vessel, the exhibit claimed, it now also connects onlookers to a better understanding of the city’s “red” history, or the history of the Communist Party. The exhibit introduced the audience to many red history sites in Shanghai, including the two former residences of Mao Zedong, sites of Party conferences and buildings that once housed Party departments.
However as I read through the panels, I noticed that there was one glaring gap in the historical timeline. Just as this year commemorates the 95th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party, it also marks the 50th anniversary of a ten-year period in Chinese history that has been omitted from the exhibit: The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.
In 1966, Mao Zedong initiated the Cultural Revolution, a decade-long campaign of physical destruction and ideological fanaticism. The campaign was supposed to be about defeating alleged capitalists in the ranks of the Communist Party and purging Chinese society of the “Four Olds”—old ideas, customs, culture, and habits. But it ended up witnessing the ruin of countless historical and cultural relics, and the persecution and sometimes execution of prominent scholars and artists, all in the name of revolution. How could this period of time be so seamlessly swept under the rug?
In an attempt to find any public remnant of this past that had survived the years of repression, I decided to conduct my own search of the city. I started at two of the landmarks from the subway display: the site of the Communist Party’s First National Congress in 1921 and Mao Zedong’s temporary residence in 1920. Each provided a plethora of information about the founding of the Communist Party in 1921, the influence of its key members, and arguments for the Communist Party’s legitimacy. “The passing and coming of time creates our history, but the history written by the communists in this building shall never be forgotten,” says the site of the First National Congress of the Communist Party. Yet the museum’s timeline of Mao Zedong’s life skipped everything from 1954, when the first National People’s Congress convened, to 1976, when he died. Again, the Cultural Revolution, along with the Great Leap Forward, was nowhere to be found. The concluding remarks of the exhibit at Mao’s former residence stated: “As it is powerfully proved, only the Communist Party of China can lead the Chinese people to achieve victory of the struggle for national independence and people’s liberation. We firmly believe that only the Communist Party of China can create ‘Socialism with Chinese Characteristics’ and deliver prosperity, national revitalization and happiness to the people.” As I digested all the new information from these sites, I couldn’t help but experience a slight aftertaste of irony.
At each historic venue, I made a point to cautiously ask the staff and nearby “Shanghai Information Center for International Visitors” employees if they knew of any monuments or important places in the city related to the Cultural Revolution. Each gave a similar response: a look of surprised puzzlement, a pause as they considered the question, and then a polite yet definitive “no.”
When I asked a sophomore communications major at the renowned Fudan University in Shanghai if he knew of any trace of the Cultural Revolution’s legacy on its campus, he assured me that there was none. Fudan was an epicenter of student activism and popular violence during the Cultural Revolution: “big character posters” were plastered everywhere, library collections were destroyed and some professors were even killed. Yet, few students today even knew their stories exist.
In a last effort to find some visible landmark in the city related to the Cultural Revolution, I traveled to Shanghai’s Xingguo Hotel. I had finally learned from a source that this venue was the city’s propaganda center during the Cultural Revolution and regularly hosted prominent leaders who gathered there to discuss party policy. However, as I approached the high-walled fences of the premises, I noticed the English name printed above the Chinese sign: “Radisson Blu.” In an ironic twist of history, a hotbed of revolutionary thought had been bought out by one of the most well-known upscale international chains of full service hotels and resorts in the world. Inside, when I asked the concierge about the building’s history, he frowned and told me that the hotel was built in the 1990s and renovated in the 2000s. Puzzled, I then asked a young man at the hotel’s entrance the same question, and he smiled uneasily and admitted that the hotel was used during the Cultural Revolution, but the propaganda offices are now event halls for the guests.
As I returned to my room empty-handed, I picked up the tin coffee mug next to my laptop to take a sip. However just before the rim touched my lips, I noticed the design printed on the side of the cup. It was a sketch of three young Red Guards proudly lined up, each holding up a copy of Mao’s “Little Red Book” in front of a background of blood-red flags. Below them, it read: “If you do not burst out in silence; you will become unhinged in silence.” I bought the mug at Beijing’s famous Silk Street Market as a keepsake. As I studied its artwork, I reflected on the reality that tourist attractions like Beijing’s Silk Street Market and Panjiayuan Flea Market or Shanghai’s Yu Garden’s Market all sell copies of Mao’s “Little Red Book” and a host of other souvenirs covered in Cultural Revolution propaganda art, whose slogans often involve jokes and catchphrases popular among young people today. How is it that these knickknacks foreigners buy to evoke memories of China are often remnants of a time that the government has tried so desperately to forget? Could it be that part of China’s Cultural Revolution legacy lies in its iconic artistic expression?
To answer these questions, I scheduled a visit with Mr. Yang Peiming, creator and director of the Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Center. I first learned of the center through a friend, then saw it again referenced in an online article titled “Top communist attractions in Shanghai.” The private museum, located in the basement of an apartment complex in Shanghai’s French Concession, attracts over 10,000 visitors every year. As I made my way to a small alcove in the back of the museum, I could see why such a hidden place could arouse so much curiosity. The walls were covered in over 6,000 colorful posters dating from 1913 to 1997, a mural of history and insight waiting to be rediscovered.
The museum’s security guard guided me to a workspace at the back of the museum, and there I found Mr. Yang hunched over his desk in focused concentration and surrounded on all sides by paintings and posters that had not yet been put up on display. He graciously welcomed me in and pointed me to a desk where we started our conversation. I began by asking him what sparked his interest in collecting these rare propaganda art posters.
“I started collecting art in 1995,” he told me, “and at that time, nobody wanted it. After the Cultural Revolution, people really didn’t like that kind of art, and the policy at that time was to get rid of those materials. After 1976, China turned to a market economy and there was more freedom and people could collect whatever they wanted, but people suffered a lot during the Cultural Revolution, so they didn’t want those stories back. That’s one way of looking at it, but for me, I think that if you want to remember history, you have to keep some art.”
Mr. Yang has done just that, for his museum is a reflection of Shanghai’s deep relationship with this kind of art. According to author Enrique Rodriguez Larreta, the city served as China’s national printing center in the 20th century, with propaganda posters reaching the peak of production during the Cultural Revolution. During the Mao era, art had to serve politics, and these posters today capture Chinese people’s most fantastic and absurd experiences during the Cultural Revolution. No other country like China has seen such a large scale surge of propaganda posters in modern times.
With so many of these posters disappearing during and after the Cultural Revolution, Mr. Yang has worked hard to keep their legacy alive. During the Cultural Revolution, he was studying in the English Department of Shanghai’s East China Normal University and vividly remembered the artistic changes of the time. “All the previous styles of art almost suddenly stopped and ‘big character posters’ became very prevalent. They started using a lot of woodcuts and block prints, which then became the main form of art, almost over 90%. Most Cultural Revolution art was done by young people and the subject was very limited.”
The museum’s poster captions offered further insight into the thematic thought process of creating these posters during the Cultural Revolution. One caption read, “In poster artworks of the time, Chairman Mao became the red sun shining down on sunflowers symbolizing the people. Common themes included supporting world revolution against U.S. imperialism, the rejection of Russian revisionism, and the relocation of students to the countryside.” But Mr. Yang believes these images today hold a new meaning: “Some tourists that come to China want to find some items that evoke memories…this kind of art is a symbol of the history. Some people really take these images to heart because they like Mao, other people just see these images as interesting and see them as a symbol of China.”
But why has such a difficult and repressed time in China’s history found such resonance in art, particularly in tourist shops? As Larreta explained it, the woodcut style prevalent in propaganda art during the Cultural Revolution connoted a powerful, popular, and democratic dimension of social activism. The relationship between woodcut movements and national traditions is deep and complex, and the combination of dramatic expression and social realism turned the woodcut into an ideal medium for representing the radical transformations of Chinese society in the twentieth century.
Jing Wang, a contributor to Larreta’s work, added that each poster is like a mirror—we can see reflections of the fantasies, reveries and daydreams of the times when those posters came into being. And for Mr. Yang, that is why he still strives to keep them and their historical significance relevant.
“During the Cultural Revolution, everything was smashed into broken pieces,” Mr. Yang told me, “but then at one time the broken pieces became the foundation for a new rising up. So it’s terrible, these broken pieces, but on the other hand, they can serve as a foundation. From this respect, we have to say that we still learned some lessons and that is good. If we didn’t have the Cultural Revolution, we wouldn’t have today’s China. If you don’t know these old things, you don’t know how to enjoy today or tomorrow.”
But there are still those who strive to make sure these old things remain unknown. In late April of this year, Peng Qi’an, founder of China’s first Cultural Revolution museum, found his memorials and exhibition halls covered in renovation signs and “Socialist Core Values” banners. After two decades of gathering private and local government donations for the museum’s construction and opening in 2005, and after another decade of its successful exhibition to the public in Shantou, the statues and plaques of remembrance are now being censored. In an interview with the New York Times, he lamented: “We thought, as the country became more open and moved forward, the museum would improve. Spring would come. But we didn’t know that spring didn’t come, winter did.”
But there is hope. Mr. Yang has demonstrated that artistic expression is the glue that holds the broken pieces together, preserving their significance against all odds. And through this expression, the testimonies, legacies and lessons of the Cultural Revolution, while not plastered on subway walls or showcased in public memorials, remain a vital component of the nation’s history.