1911: The last Qing Emperor Puyi abdicates; revolutionaries led by Sun Yat-sen establishes the Republic of China.
1912: Sun Yat-sen becomes the first President of China
1921: Foundation of the Chinese Communist Party
1925: Sun Yat-sen dies; Chiang Kai-shek becomes leader of the Nationalist Party
1937: Beginning of the Second Sino-Japanese War
1945: Sino-Japanese War ends; beginning of Chinese Civil War between the Nationalists and Communists
1949: Communist Party wins the Civil War and establishes the People’s Republic of China with Mao Zedong as Chairman
1958: Mao enacts the Great Leap Forward
1962: The Great Leap Forward officially ends
1966: Mao declares the start of the Cultural Revolution; formation of the Red Guards
1968: Mao recalls the Red Guards; students are sent en-masse to the countryside
1971: Lin Biao Dies
1976: Mao dies and the Cultural Revolution officially ends. Hua Guofeng becomes the Chairman of the Communist Party. The Gang of Four is arrested and officially tried.
1978: Deng Xiaoping announces China’s new Open Door Policy to foreign business
1981: The Communist Party officially denounces the Cultural Revolution as a “mistake”
The Cultural Revolution was a unique movement within China’s history— a period of social, cultural, and economic upheaval caused by radical government ideology. It not only affected politics, but also the daily lives of the Chinese people. This exhibition tells the story of the Cultural Revolution through ceramics made during the movement. Although posters, Little Red Books and Mao badges are the objects most commonly associated with the Cultural Revolution, ceramics were also an important part of the period’s visual culture. Objects from this period— from posters, to dish ware, to clothing— illustrate how Communist revolutionary ideology permeated all aspects of life such as education, work, leisure, and social interactions.
At the center of the movement was Mao Zedong (1893-1976), leader of the Communist Party and Chairman of the People’s Republic of China since the nation’s establishment in 1949. Mao rose through the ranks of the Communist Party during the tumultuous years of the Sino-Japanese War and the subsequent Chinese Civil War; he was viewed by many as the father of the modern Chinese state. But by the early 1960s, Mao’s grip on power was waning. The Great Leap Forward— an economic and social campaign intended to collectivize and industrialize the nation— had been a massive failure that resulted in millions of deaths from starvation. By the time the campaign had ended in 1962, the Communist Party was doubting Mao’s ability to continue ruling the nation and forwarding the socialist cause. Moreover, Mao was worried about his legacy. His model, former leader of the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin, had been denounced by his successor, Nikita Kruschev, shortly after the former’s death. In order to reassert his dominance over the Party, remove the opposition, and cement his place within the pantheon of Communist leaders, Mao enacted his final campaign: the Cultural Revolution.
The Cultural Revolution officially began on May 16, 1966, when Chairman Mao called on the Chinese people to make revolution and “bombard the establishment.” The early years, from 1966 to the end of 1969, illustrated in the section “It is right to rebel,” were chaotic and witnessed the collapse of the civilian state. Red Guards, militarized high-school and university student groups that swore loyalty to Mao, took over institutions and sought to “revolutionize them” by routing out capitalist, intellectuals, bourgeois, and revisionists— all “enemies” of the proletariat. They were also called upon to “smash the Four Olds,” old ideas, culture, habits and customs, leading to the destruction of not only private property, but also numerous cultural artifacts that were deemed “feudal.”
Meanwhile, revolutionary groups within the government and factories seized power and overturned the current organization. The human toll was devastating. Workers and party members were purged from their positions or sent to labor in the countryside; many were subjected to “struggle sessions,” where victims were publicly humiliated, threatened, beaten, and forced to make confessions. Others died during armed power struggles between different revolutionary or Red Guard groups. During this period of unrest, Mao and his closest followers were able to overturn the establishment power of the Party and dispose of “traitors,” the members who had favored more moderate policies and had spoken against him.
However, after years of chaos, the Party realized the need to restore order and to restart the economy, which had ground to a halt. People’s Liberation Army soldiers were dispatched to reinstate a working form of governance while Red Guard groups were disbanded and students were sent to the countryside to be “reeducated.” The 1970s witnessed a return to relative stability and normalcy. Some of the purged— former professors, administrators, cadres—were rehabilitated and Party members attempted economic reform, led by moderates such as Deng Xiaoping (1904-1997) and Zhou Enlai (1898-1976). After the death and alleged defection of Mao’s successor, Lin Biao (1907-1971), in 1971 a group of radical Party members comprising Zhang Chunqiao (1917-2005), Yao Wenyuan (1931-2005), Wang Hongwen (1935-2002) and Jiang Qing (1914-1991), the Chairman’s wife— later known as the Gang of Four--came to power, especially within the cultural realm.
The Gang of Four—acting as Mao’s right hand— maintained an iron-fisted control of media and artistic production. Since the early days of Party rule, Mao believed that the main purpose of art was to forward the revolution. Thus, works had to speak to the “masses” and promote good political ideology; aesthetics were secondary, while self-expression— a hallmark of artistic production in Western culture— was seen as bourgeois. During the Cultural Revolution, this strict control over the arts was exacerbated, as the Party sought to create a distinct, monolithic visual culture that was instantly recognizable and widely disseminated. Jiang Qing played a major role in artistic production; as a former actress, she saw the need to reform Chinese opera and rid the performing arts of any “feudal” aspects. As part of this campaign, she, along with large teams of professionals, created a set of eight “model” performances, called the yangbanxi (样板戏), that were broadly disseminated and widely performed.
Aside from the performing arts, the Party also maintained tight control over the visual arts. Images were required to have revolutionary content and featured model heroes from Jiang Qing’s performances or the masses: workers, peasants, and soldiers. Mao— his accomplishments and ideology— was also central to the imagery of the Cultural Revolution, as the Chairman became the object of intense devotion. Not only did the Party determine subject matter, but it also regulated the limited number of styles artists were allowed to use. Many popular painting styles, such as abstraction or impressionism were deemed as “capitalist” or “bourgeois” and banned. Even traditional ink painting— which had a long history in China— came under attack. The Party endorsed “Revolutionary Realism and Romantic Realism,” a style based on the Soviet Socialist Realist painting that portrayed its subjects naturalistically, but emphasized heroic aspects. In addition, the Party also promoted folk styles that drew from nianhua (年画), traditional New Year’s paintings, as the effort to popularize art and appeal to peasant viewers.
Jingdezhen and the Cultural Revolution
Given the strict control over artistic production and imagery during the Cultural Revolution, what happened when radical politics encountered a distinctly Chinese, traditional art form? China has a long history of ceramic production and the kilns at Jingdezhen, which have been producing imperial porcelain since the 11th century, are among the nation’s most famous. The site, endowed with rich deposits of micaceous rock, or porcelain stone, and kaolin, was known for its production of high-fire ceramics such as porcelain, which was a closely guarded secret. Because of the extremely high quality of porcelain, Jingdezhen created many wares especially for the imperial family, as well as for export; the kilns, although producing a great variety of vessels, were especially famed for their qingbai (青白), blue and white (青花), and famille rose (粉彩) ware, which were produced during the Song, Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties.
Jingdezhen continuously produced ceramics for both imperial use well into the 20th century. After the abdication of the last emperor in 1912, factories made high quality porcelain under the new Republican government. The kilns suffered from the political upheaval, but efforts to renew production under the Republic were successful. During the 1940s, Jingdezhen was greatly affected by the Second Sino-Japanese War and the subsequent civil war between the Nationalist and Communists. After the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, the Communist Party worked slowly to collectivize the factories and implemented new organization and incentives for workers. By the 1960s, Jingdezhen had returned to a state of relative productivity and prosperity— or at least stability— through government collectivization efforts. Porcelain factories continued to produce a mix of traditional wares, such as famille rose and literati-inspired vessels, in addition to new types of works celebrating Communist Party history.
Although Jingdezhen was spared the worst of the Cultural Revolution, the movement nonetheless affected the production of ceramics. In the early years, production was severely disrupted as revolutionary groups and Red Guards took over the factories and reorganized them. Managers and high-ranking artists were struggled against and purged— often sent off to labor in the countryside. However, by 1970, the political situation had stabilized as Mao recalled the Red Guards and set about restoring order. Work units took over management of the factories; many artists who were rehabilitated were allowed to return to their jobs. The years following the chaos, from late 1969 onwards, were particularly productive; most works made at Jingdezhen during the Cultural Revolution, and featured in this exhibition, date to this period. Unless otherwise noted, the objects presented in the following sections were made at the Jingdezhen kilns, although other porcelain factories in China, such as those in Sichuan and Hubei, similarly produced new objects with revolutionary imagery.
Even after the return to stability, the politics of the period dramatically affected the types of goods produced. Many artists were forced to cast off traditional genres and motifs to adapt to the government mandates. For example, “bird and flower” painting (花鸟画), a traditional and prized genre depicting flora and fauna was banned; the content was not political, and the genre of painting, which was closely associated with the literati class, was thus considered feudal and bourgeois in nature. Porcelain factories also ceased to produce statues of deities and buddhas; instead, they made figurines of Communist figures and tableau-style sculpture depicting important events from Party history. Factories were allowed to produce vessels (such as vases and jars) in traditional shapes, but the imagery also had to be revolutionary in nature.
Although artistic license was restricted, ceramicists were given some freedom in designing their works— the specific elements, composition and colors— as long as they adhered to correct subject matter. Small groups of specialized, highly trained artists formed “Research Groups” (研究室) that experimented with different imagery and techniques. Moreover, in spite of the turmoil, artists continued to feel great pride in their work and technical abilities. In interviews by anthropologist Maris Boyd Gillette, many workers who lived through the Cultural Revolution expressed ambivalence towards the period: they disliked the political instability and violence, but enjoyed the egalitarianism and strong support network offered by their factories. Moreover, despite the strict controls over imagery, this period was ultimately productive as it led to the development of new ceramic decoration styles, imagery, and sculptural models.
This exhibition features a wide variety of ceramics from Jingdezhen: sculptural tableaus, figurines, busts, plaques, dishware, and painted vessels. These were not intended for daily use, but as decorative objects; highly valued for both their ideological message and ornamental qualities, they were often given as gifts. While they are united in their pro-Mao, revolutionary imagery, these works represent different facets of both ceramic production as well as the imagery of the Cultural Revolution.
Each section of this exhibition is organized thematically, with sections focusing on important aspects of the Cultural Revolution, such as the Red Guards, model operas, model heroes and workers, feminism, and the cult of Mao. These ceramics, like other visual arts, illustrate the prevalence of Maoism and revolutionary culture; they both reflected and reinforced the artistic and ideological ideals of the Party. Not only do they offer viewers a fascinating glimpse of life under Mao, they also illustrate the collision between traditional Chinese art production and radical politics. Ranging from sculpted tableaus to detailed, painted vessels, these ceramics highlight how artists adapted to the economic and political changes of the Revolution and created works with new and unique imagery during this period.