China – The Red Sons: A Screening and Conversation with Zheng Shengtian

May 3, 2016
AAA in A, '09-'21

43 Remsen St. Brooklyn, NY

Jane DeBevoise (JD): Okay, we’re going to start now. Ladies and gentlemen, we are on a very tight schedule here and tonight we have a wonderful opportunity to hear Professor Zheng Shengtian talk to us about his experiences during the Cultural Revolution. I’m Jane DeBevoise, Chair of Asia Art Archive in Hong Kong and New York. Zheng Shengtian is on the Board of Asia Art Archive in America and has wonderfully and generously allowed AAA to digitize his personal archive which is accessible in large part on our website. It is a treasure trove of information about his experiences in Hangzhou as a teacher, as an artist, and as a leader of a very, very active art scene at that time. Zheng Shengtian is a writer, a curator, and an artist. He worked for 30 years at the Hangzhou Academy, graduating from there in 1958 and after that, teaching and working as an artist. The Hangzhou Academy, then called the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts, and now called the China Academy of Art, is and was one of the finest art schools in China. There he was both the teacher and mentor for some of the most important artists working today. And Professor Zheng is still very active today as Managing Editor of Yishu magazine and a champion of all sorts of important projects, especially in Vancouver where he has lived since the early 1990s. We are thrilled that Professor Zheng was able to take time out of his busy schedule to join us here tonight. Tonight’s conversation is going to be very informal. We haven’t scripted anything, unlike what we just saw in the movie Red Sons [laughter]. It will be interesting to hear what he thought of the movie, but the thrust of tonight’s event will focus on Professor Zheng, his personal experiences as an artist and as a teacher in China during the Cultural Revolution.

So maybe I will just start out with a few questions. In 1966 you were 28 years old. You were already a young teacher at the Hangzhou Academy. What I’d like to know from you is: how was the Cultural Revolution announced to you personally? How did you get the news? What was your reaction? What was the reaction of your colleagues? How did this affect your art? How did it affect your classes? Please tell us whatever you can about this time.

The Four Clean-ups Movement, c. 1964, photographer unknown.

Zheng Shengtian (ZST): First of all, thank you Jane for inviting me. I am very happy to be here to talk to you about the Cultural Revolution, and I am extremely happy to see many friends, old and new. On one level, the Cultural Revolutions seems [like] a long time ago. This year is its 50-year anniversary starting in May, officially. But after watching this movie, it doesn’t feel [so] long ago. Some of you experienced living through that period, and some of you might have read the newspapers about it, even if you were not there. You read papers or you saw some images. But now, as I watched this movie, I was wondering what the new generation of Chinese people would think, what would their reaction be? I suppose this probably would seem more like science fiction to them, because it is so different from the environment in which they now live. It probably seems unbelievable now.

As Jane said, I was a young teacher at that time. I graduated from the China Academy, which was then called the Zhejiang Academy. That was in 1958. After that I stayed at the Academy as an assistant teacher. Then in 1960 I went to Beijing and continued advanced studies at the Central Academy of Fine Arts. At the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, I had just returned to Hangzhou. Yesterday, I told Jane that a lot of people probably don’t know that there was a preparation period, before the Cultural Revolution really started. To prepare for the Cultural Revolution, the Central Government in 1964, launched a campaign in the cultural field called Wenyi Zhengfeng (文艺整风 Art Rectification campaign), to criticize artworks that the government felt were not right. So this I would say was actually the beginning of the Cultural Revolution. And after this, around the same time of Wenyi Zhengfeng, they started another much wider movement all over China called Siqing. I have a little note that you can read about this movement.

Setting fire to paintings and calligraphy as part of the Art Rectification campaign, c. 1964, photographer unknown.

JD: The Four Clean-Up’s Movement.

ZST: Mao launched this campaign to clean things up in the fields of politics, ideology, organization, and the economy. That was really a revolution and spread out all over China, to every city and all through the countryside. The schools were closed, and as university teachers and students, we were all sent to the countryside or to factories to work in teams to help the local government, on all levels, do this clean up. For this, we would go to the countryside to find something wrong, just like what Xi Jinping is doing now. He is sending all his teams to the factories… but in 1964, this movement was led by Liu Shaoqi. I personally went to a people’s commune. And as a first task, one had to chose where to stay; you were not supposed to stay in the place that the local leaders offered to you, because it could be perceived as a bribe. So you would choose the poorest family, the people you think had the [least] power, or [who were] less connected to power. Then you start your investigation to find out what is wrong in this village, to find out who is the person most corrupted or something like that. This would take months. Like detectives, we went to all the small villages and talked to the people. Then we — the gongzuo dui (the working team) – would have meetings every night. Together we’d discuss where this would lead, who is the major person responsible for the problem. Eventually, it might turn out that the responsible person was the head of the village or the party secretary or the accountant or whatever. So then, you started having meetings called pi dou hui (批斗会).

JD: Struggle sessions.

ZST: During these sessions, you would try to make people confess what they did wrong. It would take months sometimes, but eventually you would find the problem, and once the person or the group confessed, they would be punished, [and often removed] from their position, and you then would organize an election to find a new leader. According to the plan, this process should take place in every village, every factory, every school in China, but it was stopped in late 1965.

Struggle Session, c. 1966, photographer unknown.

This was before the Cultural Revolution. [And different from the Culture Revolution] the ‘Four Clean Ups Movement’ was organized by the Central Government. Everything was organized. By contrast, the Cultural Revolution was completely, I would say, ‘democratic,’ because at the beginning there was no one to tell you what to do. The ‘Four Clean Ups’ lasted two years. Documentation from the Central Government, from Mao Zedong, has shown that he didn’t support this clean-up movement because it was still under the control of people in Communist Party [hierarchy], the so-called Rightists or Revisionists that followed Liu Shaoqi (刘少奇) and his wife. They were at the top [of the Party at that time], making orders and arrangements for the ‘Four Clean-ups Movement’ and Mao didn’t like that. So in 1966, Mao organized another campaign; and in February 1966 empowered the ‘Group of Five’ (文化革命五人小组) to lead it. This campaign declared that the Four Clean-ups was wrong. And Liu Shaoqi’s wife, who had given a long report about the Clean-up movement, was strongly criticized. But this is still not considered the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, because Mao was still not satisfied with [the Group of Five and what they were doing]. He thought this group was still looking to Liu Shaoqi [for leadership], and that they were actually trying to protect some people in the leadership. So Mao decided to kick them out, starting with Peng Zhen (彭真), the Mayor of Beijing who had headed the Group. That was in May, May 16, in fact, the date that the announcement was made that is considered the official beginning of the Cultural Revolution. We call this announcement the Circular of May 16 (五一六通知). That morning we were all woken up by a broadcast announcement, and the newspaper carried the headlines, stating that The Circular of May 16th had been issued by the Central Committee of the Communist Party. This announcement mainly criticized the Group of Five, saying that they were not really following the guidelines of the Cultural Revolution, so Mao ordered the establishment of a new leadership group, the Wenhua Geming Xiaozu (文化革命小组), the Cultural Revolution Group, headed by his wife Jiang Qing. This announcement gave the basic guidelines, [explaining] what the Cultural Revolution was: that it should start from the people, and not from above, and that the people were free to criticize everyone they thought was [doing something] wrong. It gave a level of democracy to China that China had never had before. This document that was partially written by Mao himself announced the theory, guidelines, and policies for launching the Cultural Revolution. So May 16 is commonly considered the start of the beginning of the Cultural Revolution in China.

JD: Please tell us something about your life at the time.

ZST: At that time, I was teaching in Hangzhou. Before that, as I said, for two years we were just following orders there. [When we were asked] to go to the countryside, we went to the countryside. [When we were asked to] come back, we came back. At that time the school was not functioning normally. Most classes had already stopped. So when the Central Government [issued the May 16 Circular] that announced these changes, most people, including myself, were very positive. But we didn’t know what to do. Normally you are not asked not to listen to the leaders. So what do you do? What was this Cultural Revolution? We had a lot of questions, but we were also very excited, especially the younger teachers because we were very much encouraged by Mao’s call [to] create a new culture, to bring an end to all older traditions, whether from China or from the West. Traditions that could not meet the needs of our time, the needs of a new China had to go. We were being asked to create a brand new culture for a new country. It was very much like the situation in the early 20th century in Russia during their socialist revolution. There was a vanguard movement with a similar idea; you were supposed to destroy the older culture to create something new. That idea was very attractive to many young people. We were very excited, although we didn’t know what to expect, until June or early July [when] a group of Red Guards emerged in Beijing. They were a group of teenagers, who, beginning with the high schools, took the lead and started this movement called the Po Si Jiu (破四旧).

JD: Destroying the Four Olds.

Destroying the Four Olds, c. 1966, photographer unknown.

ZST: Old customs, old cultures, old habits, and old ideas. That began in Beijing and then quickly spread to the other cities. After some people set an example, it was easy to follow. First, there were a few high school students in Beijing. Actually now we know that many of those high school students were high cadres’ children. They had access to a lot more information than others. They knew there was a struggle and they were [able to be] much braver to start this campaign, to burn the old books and libraries, in fact anything [considered] old was burned. It happened everywhere, at every library, university, and high school. The worst damage was done at the lower levels; they destroyed everything. Teenagers burned the high school libraries. At universities, students behaved a bit better; they might have taken some books, saying they were bourgeois; but they would also save some books. At the universities, the school authorities often found a way to protect some [of their] facilities, so not everything was burned.

Destruction of Buddha statue in Lingyin Temple, Hangzhou, 1966, photographer unknown.

JD: You had a story about the temple in Hangzhou…

ZST: Yes. Religion was of course one of the main targets during the Cultural Revolution. At that time, the only [acceptable] ideology was Marxism, and Maoism and Leninism. Every religion was criticized; it was considered ‘Religion is the opium of the people’ (Karl Marx). So the kids started to destroy the temples, the Buddha statues — things in the temples. Hangzhou, as you know, is famous for its temples. During that time, almost 99% of temples were destroyed overnight. Teenagers didn’t even need to be ordered. They knew they weren’t going to be punished for this. They just ran as fast as they could to the closest temple, and in one week, probably all the temples were destroyed. But there is one temple in Hangzhou, the Lingyin Temple that is the best temple. If you have been to Hangzhou, you probably know it. The Lingyin Temple is very old, dating from about the 4th Century AD.

I remember that time well. It started first with the high school students. I guess they thought, ‘This is a big temple. Now we are going to [destroy it!].’ Many of the high schools were far away from the temple in the city and at that time transportation was not so good, so the students had to walk to Lingyin Temple to destroy it. But once the university students heard about this, especially at the Art Academy, we decided to protect it. When we teachers and students heard some high school students were [on] the march, heading to the Lingyin Temple, we decided we should run to protect it. The closest university was Zhejiang University and they too had learned about this and they headed out to Lingyin Temple as well. When the first group of people from the university arrived at the temple, they closed the main gate and stood in front it, arm in arm, to stop teenagers from getting inside. In a few hours, other university students arrived to support the effort. I went with my students to the temple. We were all standing in front of the temple, several hundred people around the gates. At about the same time, a similar number of teenagers arrived, shouting their slogans, ‘Destroy the Four Olds!’ But we also had Mao’s Little Red book in hand, and we started talking back, saying that we should protect our tradition or something like that, because Mao’s book also said something about protecting our culture was a good thing.

People stood in front of the temple for about two days and two nights. At the time nobody was really fighting. We were just debating. It was just the beginning of the Cultural Revolution and people were still acting civilized. Nobody had punched anyone [yet. That would happen later.] I remember that when the city people from Hangzhou and the [nearby] suburbs heard about the students surrounding this temple, they too came out and [brought] water, food, and fruit. They gave it to us, the university students; they didn’t give it to the teenagers. The general public still wanted this temple to be preserved.

In the end the Hangzhou government made a very smart decision. They sent a team to the temple to announce to all the students that the outcome of this protest was their decision. The officials said, ‘We are listening to you. If you decide you should destroy [the temple], then destroy it. If you decide not to [destroy it], we will preserve it. The government is listening to you. But, until you make the decision, we will build a wall around this temple to protect it. Once you’ve made the decision, you let us know.’ The city officials were very smart; the students never reached agreement. So the temple was protected. It was the only temple that survived the Cultural Revolution in Hangzhou. The wall was there until 1974 when the prince of Cambodia, Prince Sihanouk, came to visit. Sihanouk remembered that there was a beautiful temple in Hangzhou and asked if he could see it. Then the Premier Zhou Enlai gave the order to the government of Hangzhou to open this temple. So they took the wall down and renovated the temple.

Lingyin Temple, Hangzhou, 1966, photographer unknown.

JD: Because we don’t have a lot more time left, perhaps you can talk a little bit about being an artist. But first, how about the library at the academy?

ZST: No, they did not ransack this library, because our students really liked those books. They would just symbolically get rid of some books, because you had to do it, right? Otherwise you would be seen as not revolutionary enough. And some books were burned… but a large part of the library was saved. However, many students and young teachers, including myself, actually agreed with the notion of [having] to say goodbye to the old to be able to accept the new. In fact, I decided to burn my own collection. And my paintings. I burned many of my paintings. I set a fire in the yard in front of the dormitory building and many artists did the same thing.

Library damaged, c. 1966, photographer unknown.

Like I said, it was a very democratic time. It was probably the first time that Chinese people enjoyed this level of democracy. It had never happened before. From June 1966 to the middle of 1967, for about a year, people followed Mao’s call for the Si Da (四大:大鸣、大放、大辩论、大字报). It was quite amazing. You can’t imagine what kind of [freedom] we had. The Four Great Freedoms. One was ‘Speak Out Freely.’ You can bet we had never before heard a Chinese leader saying this to the people! [laughter]. The second was ‘Air Views Fully,’ which meant you shouldn’t hide anything. You could say whatever you felt like. And ‘Hold Great Debates.’ If someone disagreed with you, just debate with them. So there was a lot of debating. And then ‘Write Big Character Posters.’ Big Character Posters were actually an early form of social media [laughter].

Big Character Posters, c. 1966, photographer unknown.

ZST: An order was given that anyone could write texts. So you wrote Big Characters Posters and people could read them from a distance. You wrote them and pasted them on a wall. The wall was built by the government or by the university. Every campus built up a very long wall – they used every kind of material, to build this wall from wooden boards and bamboo, and they built a shed to protect it from the rain. People liked to paste posters at night. Nobody would interrupt you at night or recognize you. So we would put up the posters in the evening. Every morning when we woke up, just as you might go to your iPad, the first thing we did was to go to the wall to see the Big Character Posters. That was the way we found out what was happening. Although there was no censorship, people still self-censored. Only in very rare cases would anyone ever write something about Chairman Mao. But you could write anything about your leader, your boss. You could criticize him, you could unveil a secret, like your boss had an affair with some woman, or you could write gossip. For example, if you [found out that] someone had financial problems or someone stole things from the school, you could write about it. Sometimes you might even criticize your roommate, saying things like, ‘He likes to read Shakespeare or he likes to read Tolstoy.’ You could even write that. It was a totally free platform for people’s opinions. Of course most of the posters addressed political issues. But for a period of time on campus, students really enjoyed this opportunity, the Si Da. They felt really free to express themselves. Of course, sometimes it caused trouble, but that was the experience.

JD: How long did this last?

ZST: It lasted for more than a year, but later on, it became more official. At the beginning it was like a free platform. It was a state of anarchy. You could do anything. You could even draw a cartoon of someone you didn’t like. You could put a drawing there and write some offensive words. But later on, it got more and more organized. At the time the Australian students went to China [referring to the movie Red Sons that was screened earlier in the evening], you would still see Big Character Posters, but they were mostly organized by people’s work units, such as a factory or a school.

One interesting fact is that during the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, the Red Guards, the young students, were so busy running around, debating, and destroying old stuff from [people’s] homes, that they didn’t have time to write. Their calligraphy was very poor, so what they did was ask their teachers who were often great artists, great calligraphers, to write for them. At my academy, all the old professors, especially from the Chinese painting department, were very good calligraphers, so they ended up being asked to write a lot of those posters that were [pasted] on the walls. After a few days these posters were torn off and replaced by others. Pan Tianshou (潘天寿), the President of the Academy wrote many [posters]. I saw it. He was really great calligrapher. He concentrated as much on his posters as on his [artwork]. I heard rumors that somebody once tore off and kept a few of Pan’s [posters]. But I have not yet seen them [these examples of his calligraphy] come out at auction [laughter].

JD: Again, we unfortunately have so little time – we are actually over time right now – so if we could hear more about you as an artist? You were a student of art. What did the art students do at the time? Did your classes stop? Did you stop painting? I understand that you were commissioned to do some paintings. Maybe this would be a good time to talk about that.

Students and teachers of the Oil Painting Department of The Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts, c. 1967. Image courtesy of Zheng Shengtian.

JD: First, this photo shows Professor Zheng’s class. How long did it take to paint this enormous portrait?

ZST: Usually it only took one day. We worked [on it] like a puzzle. We all were responsible for one small section, but we were very well trained. We had the scaffolding, and everybody worked on their own square. So, in one day, it was finished.

Painting Mao’s Portrait on billboards, c. 1967. Image courtesy of Zheng Shengtian.

Talking a little bit about myself. I was a student in Hangzhou in the 1950s. I studied with a Russian-trained painter. So my style began in the Russian socialist-realist style. A Russian painter Konstantin Maksimov came to China in ’56 to ‘58. In Beijing, he taught a workshop. But I didn’t study with him. I was too young at that time. I didn’t have that opportunity. But my teacher Wang Chengyi (汪诚一) studied with Maksimov and I studied with Wang. And later some artists trained in Moscow and Leningrad [came] back to Beijing and Hangzhou, so we studied with them too. Like Quan Shanshi (全山石) and Xiao Feng (肖峰). We were basically all trained [in] the Russian socialist-realistic style. But some of us were not very happy with that style. We knew it was important, but we wanted something more, something new. At that time, some students were chosen to pursue a kind of advanced study, similar to a Masters Degree. So in 1960, after I graduated from Hangzhou, I went to Beijing to study with Professor Dong Xiwen (董希文). Dong Xiwen was a very unique painter in 20th century China. He was a student of Lin Fengmian (林风眠) in Hangzhou, but he also went to Dunhuang for many years. So his style combined Western modernism [learned from Lin Fengmian] and Chinese tradition [learned in Dunhuang]. In Beijing, he had a studio that taught this approach. He asked the students to make art that should be not only revolutionary and nationalistic, but also modernized. This was a very new idea at that time. Modernism in the 1950s and 1960s was almost taboo; if you were experimenting in modern art, you could not tell [people that was what you were doing]. It was [considered] Western, bourgeois, and decadent. But Dong Xiwen called for Geminghua, Minzuhua, and Xiandaihua (革命化、民族化、现代化); these were three goals that [he encouraged us] to achieve, and many of my school classmates believed this suited our objective [to make a new kind of Chinese art.] We wanted to create work like this. We were intrigued by examples of art from Mexico. In 1956 there was a huge exhibition from Mexico that included Diego Rivera, [David Alfaro] Siqueiros, and [Jose Clemente] Orozco and many others, all those great Mexican painters. Their work [to us] was revolutionary. Their work was nationalistic in style but it was also modern. When we found we could go in this direction, we really respected our teacher Dong Xiwen, who made a great painting called Kaiguo Dadian (开国大典) or in English The Founding of the Nation (ca. 1953) that is now in the National Museum in Beijing.

Zheng Shengtian, Girl and Cactus, 1964. Image Courtesy of Zheng Shengtian.

These are some paintings I did during that time. You can see the Mexican influence [laughter]. I painted a Hangzhou girl with a cactus behind her [laughter]. [Cactus plants are not indigenous to China.] That is a painting I made of two Mongolian girls reading in a yard. At the time this style was not considered mainstream. Actually, I was criticized for it. I had one painting of Mongolian people sitting in their yurt, drinking milk tea, and it was selected to be shown in the National Exhibition in 1964. I was very happy because at that time a young artist’s work being selected for such an important exhibition was a great privilege, an honor. But then some people from the Chinese Artists’ Association criticized me, saying it was not the style they wanted. They asked to have this painting removed. There was a little argument, but happily my school protected me. They explained that Sheng was a good teacher [laughter]. Now the painting has disappeared. I can’t find it.

JD: It hasn’t come out on the auction market yet… [laughter]

ZST: No, no, not yet… But anyway, when the Cultural Revolution began, as I said, we were all very excited, because now the Soviet [socialist – realist] style –the mainstream style at the time — was being criticized. At the time this Soviet style art was criticized as revisionist. It was thought to be too Western. [By contrast] what we were doing [was] following Chairman Mao’s ideas to create ‘revolutionary work.’ We believed that [what we were doing] was good for people, that it was needed. So we did it. At the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, this is the work I did.

Zheng Shengtian, silkscreen print of images of the major perpetrators of imperialism, revisionism and reactionary politics, 1966. Image courtesy of Zheng Shengtian.

During this time the Red Guards were also making posters, but most of the time the quality was really bad. They just didn’t know how to do it. So, in art school we created these copy books to show them how to draw. For example, if they wanted to paint Nixon, we showed them how to do it. [laughter] Or Hitler, or Indira Gandhi, or all these other bad people. We made examples and produced silkscreens and printed hundreds of copies to give away to the amateur artists to follow. When they made their own small publications or posters, they could use these as examples. So later on, in China, after the chaos…the chaos, we don’t have much time to talk about the chaos…

JD: You mean from 1966-1967s, the ‘democratic’ period?

ZST: Yes, that was the chaotic period. It was total anarchy actually, and in the end there was really violent fighting, and a lot of people were hurt or killed. That was when two or three [Red Guard] factions were fighting with each other. But, it was not like that at the very beginning of the Cultural Revolution, when debate was encouraged. Later people had guns. [People] obtained all kinds of weapons from the army; they used machine guns and even canons. It became a real civil war. In 1967, in many areas of China, there was civil war. But this chaotic period eventually ended; the situation calmed down and gradually returned to order. But when the Red Guards stopped fighting, they needed to find something to do, so they launched a campaign called the Hong Haiyang (红海洋), which can be translated as the Red Sea. In the beginning of the Cultural Revolution in 1966, the term Hong Haiyang was used and Red guards asked to cover the country with red paint. In our case, it meant red paintings, paintings about revolution, paintings about Chairman Mao. Again this campaign started from Beijing, where a huge exhibition of revolutionary painting and posters was being organized. So we were allowed to go back to the studio after one year to pick up [our] brushes and paint.

In the beginning, we painted this portrait. It was located at the gate of the Hangzhou Steel Factory. The Hangzhou Steel Factory was a very large industrial company in Hangzhou. I just learned from WeChat that the whole building is now abandoned. It is a huge space.

Zheng Shengtian, Xu Junxuan and Zhou Ruiwen, Chairman Mao Inspects the Situation of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in Northern, South Central, and Eastern China, 1968. Image courtesy of Zheng Shengtian.

This was in the middle of 1967. Big billboards or big posters were needed everywhere and, we students and teachers would go and do them. Then as I said, we started preparing for a big exhibition, so we worked on some easel paintings. This is a painting by three artists, including me. It’s called Mao Inspected the Situation of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in Northern, South, Central, and Eastern China. The more popular name is Renjian Zhengdao shi Cangsang (人间正道是沧桑). That is one of the lines from [one of] Mao’s poems and means, ‘in the world everything is changing.’ So we tried to depict that kind of a feeling, and I designed this composition. I put Mao standing above the clouds, where he could [see all of China from the sky]. And the ground was covered with red flags. On the ground, you can recognize cities; I made Hangzhou the largest [laughter]. Shanghai is there, and you can also see Jinggang mountain (井冈山), and the Shaoshan (韶山) in Hunan where Mao’s was born. Now this painting looks quite romanticized, but this [soft romanticized style] was not very common at the time, and it became very popular. I think hundreds of thousands of copies were made and distributed, and some were printed on billboards. One of the largest billboards was at the Shanghai railway station. It was huge.

Chairman Mao Inspects the Situation of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in Northern, South Central, and Eastern China printed on a metal plate. Image source unknown.

As you can see, this painting was also turned into a little decorative object. In fact, I bought this one in Hong Kong, in an antique store right next to Asia Art Archive. It cost about 200 Hong Kong dollars [about US 25 dollars]. So you can see how popular this painting was at that time. Until one day Jiang Qing (Mao’s wife and one of the Gang of Four) saw it. One of our school leaders thought it was a great achievement that we made such popular work, so he went to Beijing and showed it to Jiang Qing. But contrary to his expectations, Jiang Qing was not happy with it. There is documentation about this incident. The reason Jiang Qing got upset was because the theme of this painting [Mao’s 1967 trip to inspect Central, South, and Northeast China] was an implicit criticism of Jiang’s policies. It was felt her policies had gone too far, sending the whole country into chaos. All the factories had stopped, people were fighting with each other, chaos prevailed. So Mao travelled all over China, and in every city, he talked to people, saying, ‘Now is the time to stop fighting. You have to let people make mistakes. You shouldn’t kill them.’ [His approach] was more modest than hers, he wanted to repair the wounds, and while he didn’t mention Jiang Qing’s name, it was understood that all the criticism was [directed] towards her and her colleagues. So Jiang Qing was not happy with this painting, and told the leader of our school, ‘People may like this painting, but I don’t. I don’t think Mao’s likeness is strong, and Mao never carried a coat like this.’ She said also that his chin was not so well painted. She would end up recommending another painting — ‘Mao goes to Anyang’ [which would become iconic instead.] But that is the beginning of another episode of our journey. I guess we need to stop here.

JD: Yes, very unfortunately we need to stop here, although as I can tell by the expression on everybody’s face that we could go on for a much longer time. So what this means is that we should definitely try to bring Professor Zheng Shengtian back to New York for the next episode. But I was told we have to vacate at 8:15 and it is now 8:36, so thank you very much Zheng Shengtian for this riveting talk, and I know we all look forward to the opportunity to continue with Part two.

Zheng Shengtian was born in China and graduated from the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou. For more than thirty years, he worked at his alma mater as Professor and Chair of the Oil Painting Department. He was also a visiting professor at the University of Minnesota and at San Diego State University in the 1980s. Zheng immigrated to Canada in 1990. In 1993 he was elected Chairman of the Chinese Canadian Artists Federation in Vancouver. From 1996 to 2000, he was Secretary of the Annie Wong Art Foundation and Director of Art Beatus Gallery. In 2002 he co-founded Yishu: Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art, the first English language magazine on contemporary Chinese art and has been the Managing Editor since then. He was a founding member and Board Director of the Vancouver International Centre for Contemporary Asian Art (Centre A) from 1999 to 2011. He has been a Trustee of Asia Art Archive in North America since 2009 and Vancouver Art Gallery from 2011 to 2015. In 2015 he was appointed the Adjunct Director of the Institute for Asian Art at Vancouver Art Gallery. As an independent curator, he has organized and curated numerous exhibitions including ‘Jiangnan – Modern and Contemporary Chinese Art Exhibitions,’ ‘Shanghai Modern,’ the 2004 Shanghai Biennale, ‘China Trade,’ ‘Reincarnation,’ and ‘Art and China’s Revolution.’ He has been the Senior Curator for Asia of the Vancouver Biennale since 2009 and won the Lifetime Achievement Award for his curatorial work. Zheng is a frequent contributor to periodicals and catalogues of contemporary Chinese and Asian art. He has lectured widely at institutions including Harvard University, Columbia University, Princeton University, Stanford University, Tate Modern, The J. Paul Getty Museum, and the San Francisco Asian Art Museum, among others. As an artist, his work has been shown in China, the United States, and Canada since the 1960s and was included in the 5th Moscow Biennale in 2011. Zheng received an Honorary Doctorate of Letters from Emily Carr University of Art and Design in Vancouver in 2013.

Jane DeBevoise is Chair of the Board of Directors, Asia Art Archive, in Hong Kong and New York. Prior to moving to Hong Kong in 2002, Ms. DeBevoise was deputy director of the Guggenheim Museum, responsible for museum operations and exhibitions globally. She joined the museum in 1996 as project director of ‘China: 5000 Years’ (1998), a large-scale exhibition of traditional and modern Chinese art at the Guggenheim museums in New York and Bilbao. Her recent book Between State and Market: Chinese Contemporary Art in the Post-Mao Era was published in 2014 by Brill.

Transcribed by Daisley Kramer and edited by Jane DeBevoise.

Co-presented by China Institute and Asia Art Archive in America.

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This program is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, in partnership with the City Council.