Part III: Eyes—Images

Of course, we had a portrait of Mao in our dormitory, then. Now, a lot of people collect these. (Guqin Player, 1940s–)

I never put up a picture of Mao. A lot of people would, but I would not. Yet, I collected a lot of buttons, a huge pile. I had a lot of the images from when Mao was very young. I preferred these Yan’an images. Then, Mao was so admirable [非常了不起 feichang liaobuqi]. The things he did later were not so good, but at that earlier time he really deserved everyone’s reverence. Chiang Kaishek was so corrupt [腐败 fubai], but Mao was different. After liberation, however, things changed. Mao, too, changed slowly. Still, there is a difference between Stalin and Mao. Mao did not want this type of reverence for himself. But somehow, the cult [個人崇拜 geren chongbai] grew after all, and he was turned into a saint. Now, or rather again, there is still this phenomenon. His later mistakes have been criticized, but now things have already been over for more than 20 years. People seem to forget easily. On the other hand, hanging up these portraits today is just a game—it is fun, but it has nothing to do with real reverence for Mao, although, of course, it is a kind of historical memory. Mao is great; he unified China, such a big country. One cannot say that he is totally bad, really. (Musician, 1930s–)

Every family had the image of Mao hanging in their house. The Mao buttons very quickly became a fad; they were “divine images” [宝像 baoxiang]! We all wanted to have them. I remember, in 1966, in December, we were walking on the street when we met the Red Guards. One of them slipped and fell and hit the Mao button on his breast. He felt so sorry for Mao he was crying. Yes, his was really a “divine image.” Around 1967, in Qinghua University, they were making a big painting of Mao with the words, “A Long Life to Chairman Mao and Lin Biao.” It was difficult when Lin Biao fell. But only in the 1980s did these paintings really disappear: who would dare move them away, really! Nobody was in favor of destroying the statues, either. Mao helps keep Chinese society safe, so people think Mao gives us security. Marxism is a religion, and Mao is one of its gods. (China Historian, 1950s–)

Mao is a great person, and his image will still be there on Tian’anmen even in 50 or 100 years…. I have a lot of pictures of Mao and statues in porcelain and other such things. He is very important to me. (Beijing Taxi Driver, 1958–)

I illustrate in the first two parts of the book that artistic production created according to official standards during the Cultural Revolution was extremely univocal and political—but it never stopped and was accompanied by much that was only unofficial but equally alive. More so than any other political movement before or since, the Cultural Revolution was all sound and words, especially in the countryside—and it was, decidedly, also a visual event. Cultural production, then, in all artistic fields including the visual arts, was a major element in the Cultural Revolution experience. Yet, the many cruelties that accompanied this experience, and the official condemnation of the event in the 1981 Resolution, have made it awkward and difficult for artists, musicians, and writers to discuss the work they produced during this time or to consider as positive its relationship to the art of preceding and succeeding periods (Andrews 1994, 314; Hawks 2003). Andrews explains that “even for those who were very active, the decade is often described as a ‘big blank.’ Many paintings made during the period have been destroyed, either iconoclastically or pragmatically—that is, by recycling the canvas for new paintings or for scrap” (1994, 314).

In terms of artistic merit, the loss of Lin Fengmian’s 林風眠 (1900–91) oeuvre during the Cultural Revolution (He 2007) is certainly graver than the disappearance of some of the period’s stereotyped propaganda images in the last decades. Yet, as the emergence of new forms of art after the Cultural Revolution shows very clearly, if we are to understand China’s visual experience in the twentieth century we must not eradicate this record, which fills many of the otherwise missing links and explains some of its breaks but even more its continuities. Andrews, in a book that covers the period up to the 1980s, prophetically emphasizes the flourishing of new art forms in the 1990s: “Although the post-Mao destruction of Cultural Revolution art has succeeded in achieving a “ten-year gap” in the history of Chinese painting, thus making literal a concept that was in part figurative, the Cultural Revolution did influence the development of Chinese art in important ways.” (1994, 315)

In Part III of this study, I examine the Cultural Revolution as visual experience. What did people see, and why and what did they feel, when viewing these images? To what extent did these images imprint themselves in cultural memory? The two chapters to follow deal with Mao as the main (portrait) hero of the Cultural Revolution and with other comic heroes of the Cultural Revolution, as well as those produced before and after. In probing visual imaginaries and materialities, I will argue that cultural production during the Cultural Revolution must not be evaluated in historical isolation: it cannot be understood unless taking into account its myriad transformations throughout the twentieth and into the twenty-first century, as well as its myriad interactions with the world beyond China.

Why deal with images from the Cultural Revolution? Because in spite of everything said about the unsavory qualities of propaganda art, it was attributed with power, and because its many echoes in artistic production to the present day suggest that this power was and is considerable. Revolutionary China as a visual experience was characterized by constant and repetitive exposure to heroism. Of the heroic figures to be seen, and to be believed in quite religiously Mao was merely the most prominent. Reverence for the hero was implicit as a function in visual presentation. The hero could but be understood as a model for emulation. Thus, the heroic image would be repeated on new levels, mise-en-abyme practiced over and over again in order to call for action.

The imposing portrait of the nation’s larger-than-life hero, Mao, becomes the inspirational model for the local heroes in the model works, model stories, and model comics. These local heroes in turn become models as portrayed on posters, teapots, cups, and cushions to inspire the individual brigade peasant leader who, again, would be depicted painting a picture or singing a song or telling a story of such a heroic model. And this leader would in turn become a model for each and every one of the peasants in his or her brigade, who in turn would be depicted in a model comic/poster/story as models for all peasants in China, and so on.

The visual (propaganda) image will be discussed both as an instrument and as an agency: a tool for manipulation and an autonomous source of its own purposes and meanings at the same time (Mitchell 2005, 350). It will be studied not only for what it means and what effect it achieves but also for the secret of its obvious vitality (Mitchell 2005, 352): Why is it that Cultural Revolution comics were read avidly in spite of their trite and predictable structure and content? How does one explain the prevalence of reprints of these comics on sales tables in Beijing’s bookstores as late as 2009? Why would Mao’s image adorn private living rooms or hang as a talisman from taxi drivers’ mirrors not just in the Maoist era but well into the early twenty-first century? What role did and do revolutionary propaganda posters, which have returned to places like back-alley restaurants in China today, play in the making of youthful identities who were not yet born during Mao’s lifetime?

I contend that Chinese propaganda art was successful insofar as it left a lasting impact on people’s lives, one felt to the present day even among those who lived long after the Cultural Revolution ended. Iexplain this impact by showing that there were several reasons for the lasting “success” of propaganda visuals in China: they could build on the “Socialist Internationale,” which served as a powerful and systematic backdrop to the story; they made use of a “popular entertainment rationale”; and finally, as with “MaoSpeak,” they took on the functions of popular religion.