OUTSPOKEN OUTCAST I was four years old when the Cultural Revolution started, in 1966. My memory of that time is clear and strong. My parents were excited initially because my father had been a victim of the 1957 anti-rightist movement. As a student leader at the Shandong Teachers Training College, in Jinan, he was labelled a rightist because he was outspoken. My mother, heavily pregnant, begged the school to let him complete his degree, which he did. But his social standing was low and he wasn’t allowed to become a teacher for years. My mother suffered, too. She was one of few women in Qingdao who finished high school and had a good office job with the city government. But she was sent to work in a factory for being married to a rightist. At the time of the Cultural Revolution, my father was a teacher at a night school for cadres and workers. My parents thought it was a chance to rebel and set the record straight.
GRUDGE CULTURE For a young child, the beginning of the Cultural Revolution was great. Everything took place in public and everyone could take part – singing, dancing, debating or criticising people. I thought my life was very rich. One of my sisters was around 10 years old, and she and her friends would perform on the street as part of the propaganda to promote Mao Zedong Thought. She didn’t really understand what was going on. My father, who was in his 30s, joined the Red Army. At my mother’s factory, the workers had political debates. They protected the managers they liked; life became very hard for managers the workers didn’t like. Nothing too extreme happened at my mother’s factory but elsewhere, managers were beaten to death by workers who bore a grudge against them. That’s why the Cultural Revolution became such a tragedy; too many grudges.
REBEL YELL The Cultural Revolution allowed my parents to vent their anger. It didn’t actually improve their lives. It was a mirage. In fact, my father didn’t have a chance to seek revenge. Very soon, the authorities announced rightists were not qualified to rebel. It wasn’t a chance for rightists to turn things around. Some of my father’s colleagues at the night school attacked him for being a rightist. They showed up at our home, saying they had to teach my father how to behave and he had to conduct self-criticism. My mother yelled at them and chased them away. She had the right to speak because she was a factory worker.
WAITING FOR THE END I remember clearly when Zhou Enlai died, in 1976. My father was on his way to work and he heard it on the news. He cried. My mother, however, said there wasn’t a single decent person among the whole lot of them, Zhou included. As the Cultural Revolution wore on, I started to feel hopeless. We all sat around waiting for old Mao to die. When he did, life started to get back to normal. People who criticised each other during the Cultural Revolution pretended nothing had happened. The authorities’ message was clear: look ahead, not back. Everyone was involved in the Cultural Revolution so where would it end if you started picking over the bones?
ARTISTIC INFLUENCES I was painting when I was 10. My father found me a private teacher who worked in the Qingdao Art Company, a business that made decorative art for export. He was my master. After junior high, I went to the Shandong province 57 Art School in the same year as Peng Liyuan, Xi Jinping’s wife; she was in the music department. After that, I went to what is now the China Academy of Art, in Hangzhou, which had reopened after the Cultural Revolution. Students were assigned to different studios. I refused to go to the Russian-style ones, where they practised social realism. I went to the No 1 studio, where there were tutors who had studied in countries such as Japan and France. Art schools at the time were very vibrant. People were doing all sorts of things in secret.
DRAWING ON THE PAST I want people to see the past as important sustenance for the spirit. The past is a resource you use to arm yourself. The West is very good at that, but not China, where there isn’t enough discussion about the past in general and nobody ever touches the Cultural Revolution. My work, I hope, will encourage people to think about the period. That decade is like a big mine; the more I dig, the more material I find. My artist statement for a recent exhibition at Hanart TZ Gallery said: “From my perspective, China’s greatest contribution to humanity over the past century was the Great Cultural Revolution, and the simultaneous emergence of Mao Zedong.” Everything else that has happened in modern China, such as economic development, could have been achieved by other countries, but who else could have managed the Cultural Revolution? It was like a nuclear explosion, emitting an incredible amount of negative energy, and still serves as an important warning to us all.
CHINESE CHARACTERS Liu Shaoqi, Mao’s right-hand man for a time, was purged by the revolution he helped start. He is in most of my paintings because his fate was so typical. We knew people in Qingdao who went crazy, committed suicide or were jailed. One of my new paintings features Gu Kailai and Bo Xilai (the disgraced Chinese politician and his wife). Their story is connected to what keeps happening in China: Bo was a revolutionary, but that’s what got him in the end. China is a dramatic country; nobody can predict what’s going to happen. Who would have thought that a month after Mao died, his wife would be put on trial and given the death sentence?
CENSORSHIP TEST I like Hong Kong. I first came here in 1992, for an exhibition of my work at the China Club. It was so exciting because, back then, it was difficult to leave the mainland. It felt like escaping. I like the richness and continuous, uninterrupted history of the streets and the buildings. I worry it has become less free, however. For example, the media seems to be self-censoring. See if you can run a photo of my painting “The Garden of Plenty” (see main picture). It features Xi Jinping as the prodigal son returning to old Mao’s embrace.
“Forever Red: The Twelve Months of the Republic” will be on show until Saturday at Hanart TZ Gallery, 4/F Pedder Building, 12 Pedder Street, Central.