Visual Memory and the Construction of a Revolutionary Past: Paintings from the Museum of the Chinese Revolution

By Kirk A. Denton

Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 12, no. 2, pp. 203-235

This essay takes a two-pronged approach to a group of paintings on revolutionary themes housed in the Museum of the Chinese Revolution in Beijing. Influenced by recent trends in museum studies, the first analyzes the context in which the paintings are exhibited, including the building itself, which is situated on Tian’anmen Square in the heart of the capital of Beijing, and the use of exhibition space. The paintings are displayed in chronological exhibit spaces along with a wide variety of historical artificats such as photographs, books, newspapers, and other revolutionary paraphenalia. They are displayed not as works of art, but as visual testimony to moments in China’s revolutionary past. Taken as a whole, the museum becomes the spatial/visual embodiment of a discourse of revolutionary history the Chinese Communist Party had long been propagating.

The second approach analyzes the paintings themselves as a visual discourse. It looks first at paintings that depict “crossings”–images of groups of people marching over bridges, through mountain passes, and, most importantly, across rivers. These images of crossings show the ineleluctable movement of history from the old to the new, from the past to the future, from oppression to liberation, which is the essence of the party-sponsored memory of the revolutionary past. Next, the essay looks at paintings that demonstrate the unity of the party with the masses, another central trope in CCP representations of the past. Then, images of of intellectuals are discussed. Finally, the essay looks at images of revolutionary martyrs, who can be seen as being at the heart of revolutionary memory.

This analysis shows a clear link between official state-sponsored memories of the past and its artistic representation, but it also shows how this discourse changed during the years these paintings were produced (1950s to 1980s); the terrain of the revolutionary past was contested, though we should not forget that this contestation was itself the product of changing state policies toward the arts.