From seminal movies to social movements, America is in the midst of marking 50-year anniversaries of revolutions in culture.
China, conversely, has been quite quiet about noting the Cultural Revolution, which began 50 years ago this week.
The reticence to reflect is regrettable. However painful, reckoning with the past can prevent recurrence. Especially since this half-century anniversary doesn’t mark an era of creative destruction, but just destruction.
The Maoist madness that saw students turn in teachers, children turn on parents and comrade confront comrade for phantom ideological crimes cost more than 1 million lives. Some from mob beatings, others to executions, a few reportedly to cannibalism. Some accused in the Orwellian nightmare took their own lives. Many others were publicly humiliated or tortured. Scores more were “sent down” to the countryside to toil and be re-educated.
Mao Zedong’s moves to consolidate power after “The Great Leap Forward,” a calamitous economic and political policy that sparked starvation, not growth, as well as his misguided belief in permanent revolution helped trigger the Cultural Revolution.
No national descent into such depravity could have happened without orchestration, including media. Propaganda like the pocket-size “Little Red Book” waved by “Red Guards” remain the iconic artifact from the era. But posters played a big part, too.
Originals from this dark era are on display at the Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Centre. During a December 2015 trip coordinated by the China-United States Exchange Foundation, Director Yang Pei Ming told me and other reporters that the posters “were very, very important at that time. … All these pictures really affected people’s behavior, doing and thinking.”
What the illustrated posters implored was fanatical fealty to Maoism, and Mao, who seems beatified. And big: Larger than other comrades, and larger than life.
“Chairman Mao’s wife said ‘make him larger,’ ” Yang said. And so they did.
The cult of personality became a show of support — and a defense mechanism. “While Red Guards set out to destroy all remnants of the ‘old world’ — including anything that smacked of feudal, bourgeois, capitalist culture — nobody no longer knew which objects were safe, never mind what the ‘new world’ was,” Frank Dikotter, author of “The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History 1962-1976,” wrote in an e-mail exchange. “As a result, cult objects, in particular, photos, portraits, posters and books with an image of Mao, but also ordinary objects (say a vase or a tea cup) with a Mao image, became popular, because they were safe and did not attract adverse attention from Red Guards or nosy neighbors.”
Top Communist cadres are sometimes depicted amid Mao, but so are soldiers and workers. “Proletarian revolutionary rebels unite” reads one that shows shouting youth waving the tome. “There are many truths in Marxism, but the most important is that rebellion is justified,” reads another.
But of course Cultural Revolution justice was jaundiced, even for staunch supporters of China’s Communist revolution, including Deng Xiaoping and Xi Jinping, future Chinese leaders who were Red Guard targets.
Posters became progressively more strident. One implores Red Guards to “Grasp revolutionary criticizing.” In most, Mao is not depicted as distant to the demons unleashed, but front and center. “Chairman Mao together with Red Guards,” reads one showing Mao among adoring zealots.
The posters protested other artistic expressions, too. “Take ‘Speech’ as a weapon to destroy thoroughly reactionary and revisionist line of art and literature,” reads one depicting Red Guards wielding oversized pens. “All the art and literature to be armed by Chairman Mao thought,” reads another.
Not all the era’s posters were inward. International relations were propagandized, too. And they didn’t just target the U.S., but the U.S.S.R. after relations cooled between the Communist countries. “Down with U.S. imperialism and Russian revisionism,” reads one image of an angry worker, farmer and soldier smashing miniaturized caricatures of a G.I. and an apparatchik. Others promoted global revolution, often with depictions of guerrilla fighters. “Political power comes from gun,” reads one unsubtle example.
The Cultural Revolution was a continuation of chaos upending recent political order and long-standing social norms.
“Chinese society was already ruptured from a Confucian, imperial past, and maybe it was because of a century and a half of trauma that the Cultural Revolution was even possible, that something that radical and strange could happen,” said Jason McGrath, associate professor of Asian languages and literatures at the University of Minnesota.
While it happened in a turbulent era, the Cultural Revolution itself was a “once-in-2,000-year” event, Yang said, “So individually everybody cannot escape this period of history.”
And yet Beijing seems to want to escape it, relying on a 1981 official verdict criticizing the Cultural Revolution but mostly sparing Mao.
While an era like the Cultural Revolution is unlikely to ever reoccur, some warn of China’s rising authoritarianism and Yi’s consolidation of power. An April Economist magazine cover reflected this widespread worry when it echoed a propaganda poster, complete with Xi in a Mao suit astride Beijing’s modern skyline amid adoring citizens holding red flags.
“Beware the cult of Xi,” it’s headlined.
But Yang seemed to channel China’s subdued response. Despite curating the posters, he said sadly: “You cannot suppose it did not happen. But broken pieces eventually became a foundation for today’s China. … My opinion is look to the future; it’s more healthy and encouraging.”
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:20 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.