Liu Chunhia’s ‘Chairman Mao en route to Anyuan’ (1967) The work 'Chairman Mao en route to Anyuan' was painted in oils on canvas by Lui Chunhia (please note that he is also known as Liu Chenghua, Chunhua and Cunhia), a youthful member of the radically communist Red Guard, more than half a century after Ma
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Liu Chunhia’s ‘Chairman Mao en route to Anyuan’ (1967)

By Paul Dunwell, writing for EasyFrame
© Copyright EasyFrame 2021

What this Article is About

The work 'Chairman Mao en route to Anyuan' was painted in oils on canvas by Lui Chunhia (please note that he is also known as Liu Chenghua, Chunhua and Cunhia), a youthful member of the radically communist Red Guard, more than half a century after Mao Zedong (the founder of the Chinese Communist Party, also known as Mao Tse-tung) led a peaceful miner's and railway worker's strike during 1922 in the Anyuan region (in the South of China, a little North of Hong Kong). Ultimately many of those workers joined his Red Army and set up the state we know in 1949.

The 75 x 55 cm painting is a fanciful-but-iconic composition that depicts Mao, when he was almost 30, in traditional dress but – even there – it was rather revolutionary in its execution given what had become convention over the intervening years. It is classed as falling within the 'socialist realism' genre.

By the time the Lui Chunhia painted the retrospective work it was considered the norm to show Chairman Mao (who was by then 74) in western clothes or a so-called Zhongshan suit (a buttoned-down baggy-panted 'tunic suit' in grey, olive green or navy blue with a flipped collar and four pockets). It was the norm to make the pervading colouring red because that reflected the colour of the 5-starred flag (though you should note that in 1922 and until 1949 the Chinese flag, although predominantly red, differed and had a blue panel in it). And it was the norm to have him surrounded by purposeful workers who were clearly on a mission with him as their inspirational leader.

In keeping with the tight controls that China has long exerted over the media, 'Chairman Mao en route to Anyuan' was not a random daubing but executed with a purpose in mind. And, once approved by The Party, it has been reproduced at least 900 million times.

This article looks at the painting itself and the artist, the subject, the event and the movement, and the specific purpose for which it was created.

Liu Chunhia's 'Chairman Mao en route to Anyuan' (1967).

The Subject: Chairman Mao

Mao is still a controversial figure because, whatever good he did, he could be a ruthless dictator. Yet he can be credited with being a military strategist, poet and visionary who unified China and ended not only imperialism there but decades of divisive civil war. He was erudite, writing in his 'Little Red Book' that 'Revolution is not a dinner party, or writing an essay, or painting a picture, or doing embroidery. It can't be done elegantly and gently'. It wasn't. Up to two million people were killed for ludicrous reasons during a 'cultural revolution' that was largely executed by 'Red Guards' who'd beat, torture and kill people for simply wearing glasses because that implied they were avid readers and therefore trying to be 'bourgeoisie' and thus better than their peers.

These atrocities were at their height in 1966 and 1967, when the painting was executed.

The artist Liu Chunhia.
The artist (with glasses) in 1968. .
Mao in 1967 when the painting was commissioned.

The Communist / Socialist Timeline

It is worth realising just where Chairman Mao's revolution sits in respect of the global communist movement.

  • Communism was an old idea and there were many experiments to see if it was practicable. In England, during and between the civil wars of the middle of the 17th century, the so-called 'Levellers' were rural rebels who tried to run a community in which everyone was on the same level and had equal rights. They were embedded within Cromwell's New Model Army, something which alarmed Oliver Cromwell, so they were dealt with by him and some leaders were executed.
  • Between 1760 and 1840 the Industrial Revolution occurred. Whatever the benefits, it was seen by many - both then and subsequently - as exploiting the working classes. This sowed the seeds of both communism and socialism. They are not quite the same thing but certainly similar. The biggest difference is that with communism most assets belong to the state whereas with socialism there is still private ownership, with assets shared, and in theory a democratic process to decide on how those share-outs work. Essentially socialism is 'contribution-led' rather than 'needs-led' like communism, making it appear in one sense to be nearer to capitalism though there are always going to be arguments about the equivalence of contributions.
  • In 1848 Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels published 'The Communist Manifesto', explaining why they thought communism was a good idea.
  • In 1917 Vladimir Lenin led the Bolshevik revolution in Russia. Joseph Stalin took over from him later and it became even bloodier.
  • In 1921 a communist party was formed in China.
  • Between 1940 and 1979 the following countries (there were others) became communist either by choice of by force: Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Yugoslavia, Poland, North Korea, Albania, Bulgaria, Romania, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary, China, Tibet, North Vietnam, Guinea, Cuba, Yemen, Kenya, Sudan, Congo, Burma, Angola, Benin, Cape Verde, Laos, Kampuchea, Madagascar, Mozambique, South Vietnam, Somalia, Seychelles, Afghanistan, Grenada and Nicaragua.
  • In 1945 the Cold War began as World War Two ended and it became clear that Russia was taking its fair share of European territories (as a reward for beating Germany) and making them communist. Korea became particularly important because Russia controlled the North and the US controlled the South. In Germany Russia controlled the East and the USA controlled the West.
  • In 1947 the so-called 'Truman doctrine', named after the American president, stated that the West had to stand up to communism in places like Korea (the war over it lasted from 1950 to 1953) and Vietnam (the war over it ran from 1955 to 1975).
  • Importantly in 1949 China (which had controlled Taiwan since 1945) became communist.
  • In 1956 there was a Sino-Soviet split, with China and Russia effectively going their separate ways.
  • In 1976 Chairman Mao died at 83.
  • In 2021 the surviving communist states are China, Cuba, Laos, North Korea and Vietnam. You'll note that Taiwan isn't. Yet Nepal, Guyana and Moldova have been ruled by communist parties in recent years.

But then there are so-called 'socialist' states that include Portugal, Sri Lanka, India, Guinea-Bissau and Tanzania. India and Russia can arguably be added to these but in 1991 the Russian-led USSR fell and in 1993 the Russian constitution effectively allowed a multi-party state.

Why This Painting was Different

It is important to understand that this painting was in a genre (so it wasn't unique) which really did break with convention. Previously Chinese art-work had really been dominated by pen and wash on hanging paper scrolls, with one typical example being Li Keran's 'Ten Thousand Crimson Hills' which was painted in 1963. But the oil-on-canvas approach was one which was adopted from the Russians who had obviously influenced China.

 Li Keran's 'Ten Thousand Crimson Hills' (1963), a typical pen-and-wash on paper scroll execution.

What's Going on in this Work?

The Centralized Propaganda Department would normally insist on the way in which they wanted Chairman Mao depicted. But here Liu Chunhia was given some artists' licence to break with customs, habits, culture and thinking. So he went to Anyuan and interviewed some of those 13,000 workers Mao had helped in 1922, workers who were still alive and who remembered Mao coming to support them. And then he portrayed the party-leader alone, perhaps because in a sense he still was. Because, even though Mao had helped to found the Chinese communist party the previous year, in 1921, China's blue touchpaper burned rather slower than Russia's had done.

Five years later, in 1927, this prosperous peasant's son, who had been working in a university, led the Autumn Harvest Uprising against the ruling political party of the time and landlords. That insurrection only lasted three months and was then supressed. But Mao learned from it that he needed an army. Of course he had already forged friendships in Anyuan that would help to provide that army – the so-called Red Army. And that's why, ultimately, Anyuan was so significant. The fact that the resistance in Anyuan was passive will also have been important.

Chen Yanning's 'Chairman Mao Inspects the Guandong Countryside'(1972), a far more typical painting of that era in terms of composition. Admiring peasants were 'de rigueur'.

Why Paint a Retrospective Half a Century Later?

Under the Maoist regime pretty well everything was done for a reason (though some things were ludicrous reasons; in 1958 hundreds of millions of Chinese killed sparrows which Mao said were eating their crops, only to find that in the absence of birds the insects ate their crops instead – this classes as one of the biggest man-made environmental disasters of all time).

During the decade 1966 to 1976 the Chinese conducted what we usually call their 'Cultural Revolution' though originally it was termed the 'Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution' (proletarians being common people). It was a violent purge that Mao intended to get rid of any remnants of capitalism or imperialism.

In fact this so-called Cultural Revolution was an attempt to revise history and distract the population on a couple of counts:

  • During the 1950s the so-called 'Great Leap Forward', which was an attempt to modernize China, had largely been a great leap backwards. It had caused famines and 45 million deaths between 1958 and 1961.
  • The political embarrassment and consequences of this, with open criticism of Mao continuing even within the communist party, presented the regime with a problem that ran into the 1960s and Mao's response was to encourage a personality cult that was very much like we see in the 21st century with North Korean leaders.

So Liu Chunhia was to paint Mao almost as a superhero, atop a mountain, young and purposeful. One is tempted to say that the work, which was a commission for an exhibition, exemplified 'blue skies thinking' before the term was ever popularised.

You should note that this kind of disingenuous glossing-over of communist failings has been mocked in Western literature, notably through novels such as Aldous Huxley's 'Brave New World' (1931) and George Orwell's 'Animal Farm' (1945) and '1984' (1949). And note that in the 21st century China is becoming the superpower.

A Cultural Revolution propaganda poster featuring the People's Liberation Army (formerly the Red Army, established 1927).

The Artist

The artist was born in 1944 in Tailai, in China's Heilongjiang Province. In 1959 he went to a secondary school attached to the Lu Xun Art Academy in Shenyang. Then from 1963 he attended the Applied Arts Department of the Central Industrial Arts Academy. His most important work was 'Chairman Mao en route to Anyuang' and it was championed by Mao's 4th wife, Jiang Qing (who was later to become one of the subversive 'Gang of Four' for which she was sentenced to death though she supposedly hanged herself). At the time she essentially dictated what went on in the arts, what was acceptable, and the imagery that was to be shown to the outside world.

So What Did the Artist Say About His Commission?

A clearly-loyal Liu Chunhia is credited as saying (in translation) that 'Chairman Mao received the Red Guards on many occasions during this great and unprecedented proletarian cultural revolution. Each time I saw Chairman Mao's stalwart figure and kindly face, waving his hand to us, my heart was thrilled and excited. I shouted at the top of my voice, "Long live Chairman Mao! Long, long life to Chairman Mao!" In these moments I longed to use my paints and brush to portray our great leader, the red sun in our hearts, for the masses of revolutionary people!'

Conclusion

In summary here is an historic document that, whether one likes communism or not, captured an imagined moment on the road to power that Mao took. A century later the state which he built is about to become the most powerful on earth. And, because it is, one should understand something of its history.

For more information on the painter's thoughts see Painting Pictures of Chairman Mao is our greatest happiness | Chineseposters.net.

It is possible to affordably buy unframed prints of work by Liu Chunhia. But with 900 million copies of 'Chairman Mao en route to Anyuan' printed you should be able to locate one pretty cheaply.

You'll want to frame whatever you buy. Any good framers will be able to show you a vast range of different solutions and advise on what might be the most suitable given the work and its proposed location.

You can contact EasyFrame on 01234 856 501 and / or sales@EasyFrame.co.uk and they'll always chat even if you don't want to buy!

Article Posted: 06/07/2021 10:09:08

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