Long Museum Chongqing tackles CR

From: Terry Russell <Terry.Russell@umanitoba.ca>
Source: The Art Newspaper (7/18/16)
Long Museum Chongqing tackles Cultural Revolution with rare show of paintings
Decade of terror remains a highly sensitive subject in China, but that may now be changing


Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution: ballet “Glory to red guards” by members of of APL (Popular Army of Liberation), Pekin, 1967. Photo: Apic/Getty Images

Few episodes loom larger in China’s collective memory than the Cultural Revolution, the decade of terror unleashed by Mao Zedong as part of his war on the bourgeoisie. From 1966 until his death ten years later, Mao mobilised China’s young people, turning them against their parents and teachers and sanctioning torture and public executions. Though officially denounced as early as 1981, the Cultural Revolution has remained a highly sensitive subject in China; the media have largely avoided all mention of the period and even historians have barely written about it.

This may now be changing. In January the president, Xi Jinping, described the Cultural Revolution as “the ten-year calamity” and the Chinese state newspaper Global Times wrote that the country needs to “conduct a radical rethink” of the decade. In May, the Communist Party commemorated the 50th anniversary of the start of the Cultural Revolution with two more articles in state-run newspapers criticising the decade. It was a “civil disorder, launched inappropriately by state leaders and exploited by counter-revolutionaries which was disastrous for the Communist Party, the nation and Chinese people of all ethnic groups”, wrote the People’s Daily. In addition, some posts published on the social media site WeChat were not immediately removed by censors.

“The decade”

Just ten days later, the inaugural exhibition of the Long Museum in Chongqing, the third outpost of a private gallery set up by the collector couple Wang Wei and Liu Yiqian, included a selection of paintings from the Cultural Revolution. The accompanying labels openly criticise the era. As we went to press, both paintings and labels remained on display.

There has been an increase in overall censorship in China in the past two years since Xi, at a 2014 lecture in Beijing, warned artists that their work should serve a moral purpose. It has been forbidden to discuss some subjects for far longer. “We can’t discuss contentious issues like Tibet or Tiananmen Square, but the Cultural Revolution has not been part of this, and we can discuss it,” says Joshua Jiang Jiehong, the professor of Chinese art at Birmingham City University.

The Long Museum in Chongqing’s inaugural exhibition, focusing on a century of Chinese art, includes 21 paintings from the Cultural Revolution period. The entrance to Long Museum Chongqing with Qiu Deshu’s Fission, 2011.

The exhibition in Chongqing, 100 Years of Chinese Art (1911-2011), includes 21 paintings dating from 1966 to 1976. These depict officially sanctioned themes such as robust peasants and revolutionary figures portrayed in a stylised heroic style. The official requirements of the time were that art should be “hong, guang, liang” (red, bright, shiny) and “da, guang, qiang” (big, bright, powerful). “All artists were required to merge art and politics” while Mao was in power, says the exhibition’s curator Lv Peng, noting that before the Cultural Revolution there was still a degree of personal artistic expression within Mao’s restrictions. But the Cultural Revolution curtailed that diversity, he adds.

“The decade was devastating for China; it did a lot of damage to Chinese art, and it had adverse impacts on the individual creations of artists,” writes Lv in the wall and catalogue texts accompanying the display. Although this may seem an understatement for the wholesale destruction of China’s historic sites, monuments and cultural artefacts by Mao’s student militias, the Red Guards, and the imprisonment, persecution and death of most of the country’s intellectuals, it is unusually rare to find such descriptions in public spaces and print publications in China. Often the Cultural Revolution is not even referred to by name and is described instead as “the decade”.


The Chongqing exhibition proves that the art of the Cultural Revolution can be shown in China today, although it rarely is as institutions usually censor themselves. The artist Zhang Dali says that art about the era can be made and displayed at galleries but only the government may address the subject in the mass media. The rules regulating the film industry are stricter, says the Shanghai filmmaker Peng Xiaolian, who has had several scripts set during the Cultural Revolution rejected by the film bureau. Her 2004 film Shanghai Story included a family talking about the period. “I didn’t visualise it, so that it might help me to pass the censors,” she says. “People don’t like to remember the Cultural Revolution because the memories are so heavy, and also we never got a real report from the government.”

• 100 Years of Chinese Art, Long Museum Chongqing (until 28 August)

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