Liu Chunhua, who was born in eastern China in 1944, does not even have an English-language Wikipedia page — but he did produce an image that was printed a staggering 900 million times.
The painting that re-wrote history, typified one of modern China’s turning points, and came to epitomize one of the towering figures of the 20th century.
Liu was a government propagandist who belonged to a paramilitary “Red Guard” unit. He painted “Mao Zedong Goes To Anyuan”when he was 24, just a couple years after Mao launched the Cultural Revolution, a disastrous, decade-long attempt to head off possible challenges to Communist rule by reshaping Chinese society according to hardcore collectivist principles.
As former Washington Post China correspondent Philip Pan writes in Out of Mao’s Shadow, the government printed enough copies of the painting “for every man, woman, and child in China, making it perhaps the most reproduced painting in the history of the world.”
It’s been called “perhaps the most important painting of the Cultural Revolution period,” and “the benchmark for the iconographical representation of Mao.”
The image depicts the young Mao on a mountaintop near the eastern industrial city of Anyuan in 1922, supposedly en route to the city to coordinate a landmark communist-led coal miners’ strike. The Chinese Communist Party had been founded just the year before, and the Anyuan strike was one of the iconic early moments in the movement’s history.
But the painting is a politically-motivated fiction: as Pan writes, “Mao was only indirectly involved” in the strike, “but the party later exaggerated his role and wove the story of the strike into its founding mythology.”
The painting is also meant to create a particular image of Mao within a very specific time and political context. Millions died in the Cultural Revolution, an upheaval that led to the imprisonment or forcible relocation of over 36 million Chinese. It required not just mobilizing the entirety of China’s population, but whipping it into a state of permanent crisis and hysteria.
The image of Mao in the painting doesn’t typify violent ideological frenzy — but that might explain why it’s such effective propaganda. As Liu explained according to a 1968 book translated by ChinaPosters.net, the painting was meant to reinforce Mao’s most positive and admired attributes while emphasising his centrality to China’s national existence.
“To put him in a focal position, we placed Chairman Mao in the forefront of the painting, advancing towards us like a rising sun bringing hope to the people,” Liu explained. “His head held high in the act of surveying the scene before him conveys his revolutionary spirit, dauntless before danger and violence and courageous in struggle and in ‘daring to win’; his clenched fist depicts his revolutionary will, scorning all sacrifice … The old umbrella under his right arm demonstrates his hard-working style of travelling, in all weather over great distances, across the mountains and rivers, for the revolutionary cause.”
Even nature itself recognises it’s in the presence of an unstoppable personality, subordinate to the historical forces he commands: “With the arrival of our great leader, blue skies appear over Anyuan. The hills, sky, trees and clouds are the means used artistically to evoke a grand image of the red sun in our hearts. Riotous clouds are drifting swiftly past. They indicate that Chairman Mao is arriving in Anyuan at a critical point of sharp class struggle and show, in contrast how tranquil, confident and firm Chairman Mao is at that moment.”
This is a lie as well. Mao’s rule was anything but tranquil, and China’s human-made crisis during the decade of the Cultural Revolution was traumatizing enough to convince all of China’s subsequent leaders to eschew collectivization and “Mao Zedong thought.”
But Liu’s undeniably powerful image was used to create the exact opposite perception over 900 million times.
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