Chairman Mao still a polarizing figure within Chinese community

first_imgBased on a complaint that a picture of Mao had no place in a civic building, city staff removed the piece. The artists were in turn offended by the city’s action, and responded by taking all 30 pieces down. “It’s not a matter of interpretation,” said Los Angeles resident Kai Chen, 53, who lodged the complaint and has written a book about his family’s political persecution during the Cultural Revolution. “It’s moral perversion.” Mao’s images have a long backstory. Even before contemporary artists decided to tinker with Mao’s picture, Communist Party photographers retouched it to make him look younger, said Jerome Silbergeld, a professor of Chinese art history at Princeton University. When he was in power, propaganda posters depicted Mao Zedong’s smiling face as “the red sun in the center of our hearts.” In the late 1980s and early ’90s, imbued with a sort of nostalgia, his likeness adorned cigarette lighters and watches in China. A giant portrait hangs over Tiananmen gate, while progressive artists had their own ideas: Mao on a Quaker Oats box; Mao silhouetted in corn; Mao as an acupuncture diagram. Today, more than 30 years after his death, the Chinese communist leader remains a controversial figure whose image still has the power to rouse deep emotions among Chinese. The debate struck a local nerve in February when an Alhambra City Hall art exhibit included a silk-screen, Andy Warhol-esque print of Mao next to George Washington. During the Cultural Revolution, which Mao launched in 1966 to reassert his power, there was a “reign of terror” over his image, as if it were sacred. “The right to paint Mao Zedong was limited,” Silbergeld said. Artists went through checks that evaluated not only their talent but their politics. “Everyone was judged and judged over and over again.” Mao’s image was posthumously revisited in the late 1980s, after the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989. The incident was a blow to people’s faith in the Communist Party, who then looked to Mao as a man who stuck by his ideals, even though his policies were disastrous. They expressed this through pins and assorted knickknacks. As information surfaces about Mao, “it bounces increasingly difficult to be a fan,” Silbergeld said. “Most Chinese artists today think of `artistry’ as the expression of their own originality and of Mao as antagonistic to this, so there are relatively few artists sympathetic to him.” Feelings about Mao among the general Chinese population vary widely. “People have very different personal reactions to him and his legacy,” said Brett Sheehan, an associate professor in the department of history at USC who specializes in modern China. “Some people have dedicated their lives to tell the world how terrible it was while others would just as soon put it behind them,” Sheehan said. Long Beach-based artist Jeffrey Ma said he has lived in the San Gabriel Valley and is familiar with local Chinese sensibilities about Mao. He insists his Mao silk-screen print is apolitical and said that he was surprised it provoked the response it did. Ma described the entire experience as “tiring.” “What I wanted to say, I was unable to say it. What I wasn’t saying, people insisted I was.” The print depicts Mao and George Washington superimposed on piggy banks. Ma chose the two figures because they are both found on currency bills, he said. It was a reference to money and its importance in Chinese New Year celebrations as well as in Chinese and American society, Ma said. “Everyone has a story” about hardship during Mao’s reign, Ma said, declining to discuss his own experiences as an artist during the Cultural Revolution. “Mao is a history topic. Leave it to historians to evaluate him.” For others, Mao remains controversial and polarizing, said Dru Gladney, president of the Pacific Basin Institute at Pomona College. While some revile Mao for the millions of deaths he caused with The Great Leap Forward, his isolationist foreign policy and persecution during the Cultural Revolution, others revere him as a leader who saved China from colonialism and rescued peasants from the old feudal system, Gladney said. Arcadia resident Chunsheng Bai, who immigrated to the United States from China in 1986 at age 23, said his family members who were professors or who spoke critically of Mao’s policies were sent to labor and rehabilitation camps. He said he has mixed feelings about Mao, who he tries to evaluate not on personal experiences but from a national perspective. “People of my age or older, in their 40s and 50s, who have lived in China, \ probably emotional when talking about Mao,” said Bai, who teaches communications at Cal State L.A. “Local Chinese communities still have two different views. … Either you love him or hate him. “Until this day, there hasn’t been any conclusion on who Mao is.” [email protected] (626) 578-6300, Ext. 4586160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set!last_img