This form of painting, which in the West would be categorized as folk or naive painting, became popular during the Cultural Revolution in China (1966-1976). Images depicting peoples' every day lives in the fields, performing productive agricultural and labor routines became a natural focus under the regime of Chairman Mao. Artists in places like Hu County in Shaanxi Province (near Xi'an), where these painting were made, were discovered and became popular.
Hu County is rich with painters working in this style. Think about skills and practices being passed down through generations of families living in a fertile art community.
While this art form gained broad acceptance in the late 1960s and 1970s, these paintings were done in the late 1990's. Are there any aspects of these Peasant Paintings that could be read as images that promote or represent Cultural Revolution ideals? How do these paintings differ in style from "traditional" Chinese painting? How are they similar? Would Mao Zedong like them? If so, what would he like about them?
My problem with the material is not what is taught. It’s nice to have students think about folk paintings from modern China. It’s what is not taught. To begin with, introducing the Cultural Revolution while studying art is likely to give the impression that Chairman Mao was concerned about improving his country’s arts and culture. Sadly, the Cultural Revolution’s main contribution to Chinese art was the destruction of countless priceless works of art because they represented “old ways of thinking.” I have been in Buddhist caves where ancient frescoes with thousands of Buddha faces were methodically scratched out by Red Guard soldiers.
Secondly, the passage gives the impression of wealth during the Cultural Revolution; agriculture is described as “productive”; Hu County is “a fertile art community,” “rich with painters.” Unsaid is the unfortunate fact that the Cultural Revolution and its predecessor, the Great Leap Forward, were times of enormous famine. Tens of millions of farmers were moved arbitrarily to work on industrial projects to force China’s Great Leap Forward into the industrial age, which led to massive starvation and widespread cannibalism--in many cases, parents eating their own children. Statistics are hard to verify, but estimates range as high as 30 million dead.
Consider this sentence again: "Images depicting peoples' every day lives in the fields, performing productive agricultural and labor routines became a natural focus under the regime of Chairman Mao." A natural focus? The author seems oblivious about the purpose of state-sponsored art in a totalitarian country: that it paints a completely unrealistic vision to cover up the horrors of terror and famine. This would be an interesting start of a discussion, to ask students if they believe the happy scenes depicted reflect life in Communist China.
In addition to famine, the Cultural Revolution was a time of brutal repression, with an additional 2-7 million murdered by execution or overwork in labor camps.
The total murdered by Mao comes to somewhere between 44-72 million people, with 20 million in labor camps over his 26 year reign.
Given these ghoulish statistics, it is perverse in the extreme to ask third graders questions like, “Are there any aspects of these Peasant Paintings that could be read as images that promote or represent Cultural Revolution ideals? Would Mao Zedong like them?”
Which ideals would those be? Cannibalism, famine and mass internment?
Would Mao Zedong approve of the paintings? Should we defer to the aesthetic judgment of a man who murdered 50 million people?
Imagine asking if the paintings promoted Nazi ideals, and whether Adolf Hitler (himself a painter) would like them, without any accompanying criticism of the Nazi regime.
This is what is called “global understanding”?