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China: Cultural evolution: a look at Mao

August 19, 2008

Chinese lift the shroud from legacy of once-dominant figure
By Patricia Wen, Globe Staff; wen@globe.com
The Boston Globe
August 18, 2008

BEIJING - Wearing a soft layered dress and white sandals, the
granddaughter of the late Chairman Mao Zedong strolled gracefully one
recent afternoon through an exhibit devoted to art work showing the
Great Leader. Kong Dongmei surveyed sketches of Mao as a young rebel
and a bronze statue of him as an aging but dignified man.

In some respects, it was remarkable that an exhibit about the most
controversial figure in modern Chinese history opened the same
weekend as the Olympics, without even a visit by a government
inspector. Throughout the games, officials have kept a tight rein on
cultural displays throughout Beijing.

Kong described having a "warm feeling" looking at the two dozen works
at the gallery, a few miles from the Olympic national stadium. She
made a point, however, to say she does not support censoring artists
who are critical of Mao - other works have depicted him wearing
lipstick or submerged in a blood-filled lake.

"We should be more open," said Kong, who helps run a nearby art
gallery. "He's a complicated person."

Curators of the exhibit said they seek to provoke discussion on one
of the most combustible topics in China today: What is the legacy of
Mao? Although China's Communist Party founder died nearly 32 years
ago, he remains a polarizing figure in this city where capitalism
coexists with authoritarian rule.

Ambivalence about Mao has been noticeable. His name or image never
appeared during the Olympics' opening ceremony dedicated to reviewing
China's 5,000 years of history. And in the tea-leaf reading around
here, some found symbolism in the official decision to replace Mao's
portrait with a picture of the Olympics' "Bird's Nest" stadium on
newly issued 10-yuan currency notes.

Yet a press release trumpeting the number of women in charge of
running an Olympic site quoted Mao's phrase that "women hold up half the sky."

"Today the feelings for him are complex," said Yuan Jia, one of the
curators, who comes from a well-known family of artists in China. "We
are not here to judge if he is right or wrong. We are here to have
more discussion and develop our own ideas."

The exhibit, called "Mao Zedong" at the Permanence Gallery, became a
forum for a rare - and candid - discussion about Mao's legacy. More
than 20 artists and scholars gathered for an informal conversation
that was supposed to focus on China's cultural landscape in the
"post-Olympics" period.

Many said they feel the need for China, after the frenzy of the
games, to begin a frank discussion about its history that does not
attempt to suppress memories of Mao's rule.

They said today's robust economy is on a shaky foundation if
political leaders and the people do not openly learn from the
mistakes - and triumphs - of Mao.

A history professor, Zhao Xun, said the Olympics' opening ceremony
disappointed him when it failed - in depicting the grand history of
China - to mention anything about Mao and much at all about 20th-century China.

"We should not deny our history," said Zhao of the Central Academy of
Fine Arts in Beijing.

He said historical amnesia will make the country likely to repeat
past mistakes. For many, one unmitigated disaster was the Cultural
Revolution from 1966-1976, when a generation of young people followed
Mao's directives to rid society of the "liberal bourgeoisie."

Several artists also said the national pride and egalitarian idealism
of Mao should not be forgotten. Even though many of them suffered
during the Cultural Revolution, branded as elitists, they said they
were initially drawn to Mao because of the utopian vision he inspired.

The regal sculpture of him that they made, or the flattering
rendering of his face, were done with genuine artistic drive rather
than propaganda fervor.

"I felt no pressure to do anything," said Cao Chunsheng, 79, a sculptor.

Given the government's sensitivity to Mao's image, it may be some
time before a full public discussion about his legacy happens.

Though the government tolerates the kitschy Mao ashtrays and watches
in tourists shops, it sporadically cracks down on potentially
disparaging images. Government critics say it is because Mao
continues to have an emotional power among the populace, and today's
ruling party needs to honor the leader to justify its own totalitarian rule.

At the Xin Beijing Art Gallery, curators had planned a July debut of
the paintings by Ma Baozhong, including some of Mao. Before the
opening, government officials scrutinized the paintings, including
one of Mao with the Dalai Lama. According to a gallery spokeswoman,
the officials said little.

Gallery operators decided to delay the opening until after the
Olympics, and though she did not specify why, she suggested it was to
head off trouble. "The subject is very sensitive," said the
spokeswoman, who only gave her first name as Andie.

Kong, who is in her 30s, said her grandfather died before she had a
chance to meet him. She said she hopes the exhibit leads more young
people to view Mao as "historical figure," not "a hero" to be blindly
worshiped.

At the exhibit, young and old artists talked repeatedly about the
need to find a cultural direction that represents a distinctive
Chinese style. "Now is the time of re-thinking," said Yuan Yunsheng,
71, a painter of murals. "We'll never try to follow the West or Mao.
We follow our own way."
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