Cultural Revolution [Chin. Wuchanjieji wenhua da geming: “Great proletarian cultural revolution”].
- Richard Curt Kraus
A decade of political upheaval in China launched by Mao Zedong to promote a return to revolutionary attitudes. Initially led in 1966 by discontented students and young workers in Mao’s Red Guards, the Cultural Revolution resulted in the destruction of some cultural objects as well as attacks on artists and intellectuals regarded as bourgeois. A cult centered around Mao Zedong overwhelmed any political resistance. The most turbulent period of the Cultural Revolution ended with the Ninth Party Congress in 1969, but its policies continued until Mao’s death in 1976.
The opening years of the Cultural Revolution were chaotic and confusing. Red Guards raided homes of elite Chinese, often seizing or destroying books, paintings, and recordings. Distinguished writers and painters were humiliated in public rituals, driving some to suicide. Others were sent to reform themselves through labor in the countryside, and many artists were either too depressed to work or not allowed to do so. Almost all “high art” forms were suppressed as “feudal” or “bourgeois.” The poster style—vivid, dramatic, and obvious in its political message—dominated all pictorial representations. Individual artistic creation was discouraged in favor of collective effort, such as the Rent Collection Courtyard, a series of a hundred hyperrealistic statues of oppressed peasants under the old regime, complete with glass eyes and melodramatic poses, made by Sichuan Art Academy students.
A common perception is that the Cultural Revolution was ten wasted years for art, as vulgar politicization reduced all art forms to the lowest common denominator. However, there was a Maoist program for reforming culture, led by Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing. Jiang, a former actress, based her reforms on the theater, promoting a series of model theatrical works which set a new direction for the arts. These didactic operas and ballets presented revolutionary themes, and their productions were tightly controlled by Cultural Revolutionary leaders to maximize their propaganda value. At the same time, these productions were put together by teams of highly professional artists, which may account for the continuing popularity of works such as the “Red Detachment of Women” or “The Red Lantern.”
The Cultural Revolution upset the traditional order of the arts, downplaying the elite genres of poetry and literature in favor of the popular arts of the stage. Elite calligraphy as practiced by gentlemen scholars suffered, but at the same time young people competed to write Maoist slogans and “big character posters” in handsome handwriting. The nationalism of the Cultural Revolution disdained Westernized art forms at the outset, but a 1968 propaganda campaign signaled a new view in celebrating both a piano accompaniment to the opera “Red Lantern” and the solemn, if rather florid, formal oil portrait Mao Zhuxi dao Anyuan (“Chairman Mao Goes to Anyuan,” 1967; priv. col.) by Liu Chunwu. With the sanctification of these works, and the endorsement of piano pieces and oil painting, arts professionals were given more leeway to use Western instruments and media, both of which were fundamental to Jiang Qing’s program of modernizing the arts.
The Cultural Revolution restored order with the 1969 Ninth Party Congress, by which time red guards had been often violently suppressed, their remnants sent to the countryside for re-education. Once the first tumultuous stage of the Cultural Revolution passed, by the early 1970s more formal oil and ink paintings by recognized artists re-emerged, although in heavily politicized guise. The paintings, often gouaches because it was a cheaper material, supposedly carried Socialist Realism beyond its Soviet origins to Jiang Qing’s preferred “Revolutionary Romanticism.” The influence of poses from her model revolutionary operas is obvious in many propagandistic paintings and posters.
Purged politicians were restored to power when Deng Xiaoping became a vice-premier in 1973; similarly, some disgraced artists were called back to work. Such famous traditional ink masters as Li Keran and Li Kuchan were summoned to produce paintings in conjunction with opening China to foreign visitors. In the unstable politics of the late Cultural Revolution, Deng Xiaoping was purged a second time, as were the ink masters, who were mocked in an exhibition of “Black Paintings,” organized for Jiang Qing to show their resistance to the revolution.
The Cultural Revolution ended with the death of Mao Zedong in September 1976 and the subsequent arrest of Jiang Qing and other leading Maoist officials. The movement’s impact was profound, including the disruption of artistic careers and the degradation of professional arts institutions. The Cultural Revolution also continued a longer historical trend to modernize Chinese culture by transforming techniques, performance practices, and the relationship between professionals and amateurs. Many Chinese, including those who were not particular Mao enthusiasts, retained some fondness for the arts of the Cultural Revolution. Some artists, beginning in the 1980s, used ironic quotations and appropriations from political art of the Cultural Revolution era to break free from the restrictions of both Chinese traditional and Western academic art. “Political Pop” and “Cynical Realism” may be considered the illegitimate and disrespectful children of the Cultural Revolution.
- Landsberger, S. Chinese Propaganda Posters: From Revolution to Modernization. Armonk, NY, 1995.
- Clark, P. The Chinese Cultural Revolution: A History. Cambridge, 2008.
- King, R., ed. Art in Turmoil. The Chinese Cultural Revolution, 1966–76. Vancouver, 2010.
- Andrews, J. and Shen, K. Art of Modern China. Berkeley, 2012.
- Mittler, B. A Continuous Revolution: Making Sense of Cultural Revolution Culture. Cambridge, MA, 2012.
- Pang, L. The Art of Cloning. Creative Production during China’s Cultural Revolution. London, 2017.