Seeing Red: The Cultural Revolution and Contradictions Among the People

A Commune Holiday 
H: 15” W: 12.5”
1972, Chinese-style painting
By Lin Fengsu 
Many people familiar with the San Diego Chinese Historical Museum have been surprised to see our new exhibit about the art of the Cultural Revolution. This rare foray into modern history is our first display about the People’s Republic, and some find it jarring to see peasants and proletarians offering adulations to Mao in cases that usually hold charming relics of China’s past. These artifacts arouse various complicated emotions among museum members and visitors, and we hope that they provoke lively discussion about the legacy of an era many would like to forget. The exhibit captions translate text, explain symbols, and give a rough historical background, but the responsibility for interpretation lies with the viewer. We trust our visitors to realize that artworks and artifacts produced under such a restrictive climate cannot be taken as factual representations of the realities of the time. All art of this era had to serve a political purpose, but the exhibit leaves it up to each visitor to differentiate state-imposed dogmatism, artists’ self-expression, idealistic fervor, and elements of pre-1949 artistic tradition.

Criticizing Ancient Rites at Western 
Xia Dynasty (1038-1227 C.E.) Tombs 
H: 15” W: 12.5”
New Year print
By Yang Shengmao
Banner: “Carry out the struggle to criticize 
Lin Biao and Confucius to the finish!”
 The Cultural Revolution is a touchy subject for a variety of reasons. Many leaders of today’s mainland government and their families faced persecution back then, and today, Maoist slogans illustrate how far today’s PRC has departed from its ideological roots. To many Chinese expatriates, the Cultural Revolution represents the sort of populist fervor that drove them from their ancestral homes and tormented those who were left behind. And lovers of Chinese culture justifiably decry the revolution's destruction of ancient artifacts in the name of modernization. The images bring back complex emotions and painful memories, feelings too complicated to justify the wholesale condemnation of a decade’s worth of artistic production and far too meaningful to ignore. A general lack of familiarity with this period in general and its artwork in particular — even among those well versed in Chinese culture — only contributes to oversimplification of history and acrimony within the transnational Chinese community, which is why exhibitions such as this one are a necessary first step in achieving a more objective understanding of this era and learning from its excesses.

A year or two ago, I led a group of high school students from Taiwan on a museum tour. The temporary exhibit on display at the time consisted of fine pottery from five different dynasties, spanning some two thousand years (Impressive for San Diegans, but less so for those who have access to the fabulous treasures in Taiwan’s Palace Museum). They listened politely to my spiel, but they had seemed more interested in exhibits about Chinese Americans in our permanent collection until something in the library caught their eye. The students congregated around a book in the library, reading quotations, laughing, and passing it around… What could possibly provoke such interest among these sophisticated young students?  Quotations from Mao Zedong 毛主席語錄.

Big Display Battlefield
H: 15” W: 12.5”
Woodblock print
 By Li Ronglong, Ji Qinghe, and Lou Chunting
When I asked them why they found the book so interesting, they simply answered, “We don’t have this in Taiwan.” Indeed, the Seeing Red exhibit consists entirely of things they generally don’t have in Taiwan and many things one can no longer see on the mainland. Of course these youngsters were far from budding communists, they merely were interested in something they’d never seen before. And so even when these images bring back bad memories or uncomfortable associations, it is important to help young people understand this strange and traumatic era in history.

An exhibit of artifacts that once glorified Mao and his ideology is fitting for our Sun Yat-Sen Extension building where a statue of Qin Shihuang 秦始皇帝, the first emperor of the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BCE), is posted at the door. Mao admired the emperor and perceived many commonalities between himself and Qin: both strengthened central authority, persecuted enemies, practiced censorship, and extracted corvée labor from the populace. And both made an indelible impact on Chinese history. Once, on the museum’s Facebook page, someone commented on a picture of Qin’s statue, saying that we shouldn’t be celebrating a tyrant. And I responded that it is not our role to celebrate or condemn Qin, but to preserve and share the history of his reign. And that is what we are doing with this exhibit, presenting images and artifacts without bestowing praise or placing blame, letting viewers reach their own conclusions. And if this exhibit has anyone “seeing red,” that is a perfectly reasonable response. Unlike the rulers of this time, we will not and cannot tell people what to think. 


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