The Cultural Revolution

Vienna’s Museum of Ethnology exhibits messages from a horrifying time enveloped by layers of history

On The Town | Mary Albon | July / August 2011

"A revolution is not a dinner party," Mao Zedong once famously stated. But when he launched China’s Cultural Revolution to speed the advance of socialism, did he expect his people would soon be eating their dinner off dishes decorated with revolutionary scenes and slogans?

Drawing on an exceptional collection of everyday objects, documentary photos and film, music and works of art, "The Culture of the Cultural Revolution," on at Vienna’s Museum of Ethnology through September 19, shows how political propaganda and Mao’s cult of personality became powerful tools for political terror and social control in China.

The Cultural Revolution unleashed a decade of chaos and violence whose impact is still not fully understood. Launched by Mao in 1966, the Cultural Revolution was intended to purge China of capitalist elements by destroying "four old things": old ideas, old culture, old customs and old habits. The result was the extensive destruction of Chinese historical and cultural heritage and the persecution of millions of people.

Exploiting the urge of youth to rebel against their elders, Mao mobilized school and university students to spread his teachings throughout China. This mass youth movement evolved into the Red Guards, fanatical young people who were the vanguard of China’s hope for an egalitarian society. But along with Mao’s wisdom, the Red Guards ranged across the country spreading destruction and terror.

Forming the core of the Ethnology Museum’s exhibition is the collection of Austrian China expert Helmut Opletal, who personally witnessed the unravelling of the Cultural Revolution and Mao’s eventual discrediting, first as a student in 1973 and later as an ORF radio correspondent in the early 1980s. Opletal started collecting when Chinese friends gave him Mao badges and everyday objects from the Cultural Revolution, telling him, "It’s something we’d rather forget."

Countless dictators and despots have used a personality cult to maintain loyalty and obedience among their subjects, but few rival the scale of Mao’s. Perhaps only Kim Il Sung, North Korea’s Great Leader and Eternal President, is a worthy contender (see "Terra Incognita," Vienna Review, June 2010).

Mao was "the greatest helmsman" and "the reddest of all suns" shining down on the Chinese people. His words of wisdom, Quotations from Chairman Mao, were "spiritual atom bombs" and mandatory reading. One billion copies of Mao’s "Little Red Book" were published during the Cultural Revolution; only the Bible had a larger print run.

The Chinese demonstrated their loyalty to Mao by carrying a copy of the Little Red Book and wearing Mao badges pinned to their clothing, or in the case of the most fanatical, pinned to their bare skin. Five billion Mao badges of various designs were produced during the Cultural Revolution, of which hundreds of examples in dozens of styles are on display in the exhibition. When Mao was informed that the aluminum used in their production was enough to produce 40,000 fighter planes, he ordered the badges to be made of bamboo and plastic instead.

During the Cultural Revolution only art with revolutionary content was acceptable. Chinese artists turned to producing ballets about Red Guards and "loyalty dances" and artworks glorifying workers and peasants in the socialist realism style pioneered in the Soviet Union. Revolutionary marches and mass synchronized displays of support for the Communist Party were staged in Tiananmen Square. Western art was a decadent threat; Beethoven was banned until after Mao’s death.

But revolutionary propaganda penetrated every aspect of Chinese life. From cigarette packs to teapots, from calendars to biscuit tins—everything carried revolutionary slogans and quotes from Mao, images of Red Guards, factories and other symbols of China’s advance. The exhibition’s standout example is an alarm clock whose face is decorated with jubilant Red Guards, one waving a copy of Mao’s Little Red Book to mark the seconds.

Perhaps the most frightening dimension of the Cultural Revolution was that its principal agents were children. One entire room in the exhibition is dedicated to the terror that the Red Guards unleashed. Film clips and photos show young teenagers gleefully destroying temples and churches, ransacking homes, and humiliating and beating middle-aged and elderly men and women. Their targets included teachers, artists, intellectuals, members of religious orders and anyone who showed the slightest sign of affluence or interest in things foreign.

The militarization of Chinese society extended to schools and sports, and children were encouraged to be "a new kind of hero" who informed on and denounced their teachers and even their parents. Children’s toys, comics and games were used to foster a revolutionary and nationalist mindset. The exhibition features a number of striking examples, such as an anti-imperialist Vietnam War board game ("You have blown up the American enemy — advance four squares").

The bloodshed of the Cultural Revolution reached its peak in 1967, when the central leadership was forced to dispatch the army to interfere. Mao disbanded the Red Guards in 1968, but still sent millions of urban youth to work in the countryside. In April 1969, the Cultural Revolution officially ended, but the political turmoil within the Communist Party continued, and only after Mao’s death in 1976 did China undertake a policy of reform and open up to the world. In 1980-81 the Party declared the Cultural Revolution a serious political mistake and partly blamed Mao for its excesses.

In 1993, the 100th anniversary of the birth of the Great Leader, many Chinese grew nostalgic for Mao and began to collect artifacts from the Cultural Revolution. Several museums about the period opened in China. Although Chinese historians estimate that up to 20 million people fell victim to executions, factional fighting, mass purges and the Red Guard terror, there is still no official Chinese history of the Cultural Revolution. There has been little effort to critically assess its impact or discuss the terror, and no one has ever been brought to justice.

Meanwhile, Mao has evolved from a living deity into a good luck charm. Chinese taxi drivers hang fringed Mao medallions from their rear-view mirrors to ward off accidents. Today you can drink "Mr. Mao schnapps" and dine at Cultural Revolution theme restaurants where the wait staff dresses like Red Guards. Mao, who now appears on T-shirts and coffee mugs and in souvenir snow globes, has become a pop icon empty of content, much like Che Guevera. Yet the destructive impact of the terror that Mao unleashed with the Cultural Revolution still lurks beneath China’s surface today.

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