The Material Culture of a Revolution

Exhibition Review: The Culture of the Cultural Revolution – Personality Cult and Political Design in Mao’s China, Ethnology Museum Vienna, 18th February to 19th September 2011
Reviewed by Heng Zhi, University for Applied Arts Vienna

The Culture of the Cultural Revolution showcases a fascinatingly wide range of almost 2000 Mao-pins and over 600 pieces of everyday objects, photographs and documents, which should “illustrate how the slogans and symbols of Mao’s personality cult were omnipresent in contemporary China” . Nearly 90% of the exhibit comes from the private collection of the curator Helmut Opletal, a former Maoist who witnessed the end of the culture revolution and later on became an expert in Chinese media and politics. Helmut Opletal organized the result of his thirty years of collecting into a thoughtfully structured demonstration of everyday material culture of the Cultural Revolution. On display are also cult-objects of the Mao-Period reproduced in the past two decades, repackaged into shifted symbolisms of a market-dominated era, which generates an interesting contrast of the faith of these objects on the scale of time.
The exhibition is divided into four sections, “Cult”, “Terror”, “Everyday” and “Mao is dead, long life Mao”, which lead the viewers through between sequences focused on mass obsession and sober observation. Section “Cult” and “Everyday” demonstrate the vast penetration of the Mao ideology into every corner of people’s everyday life. Besides well-known objects such as Mao-pins, Mao-bibles and armbands of the red guards, a major part of these two sections is dedicated to the less-known, nearly banal objects, which all together, to certain extend, constructed the material existence of the average household between 1966 and 1976. To be seen are bed sheets stitched with words that show “loyalty” to the communist party; kitchen and utensils enamelled with phrases and images of propaganda; toys and play-cards labelled with portraits of “Gang of Four”; packages for biscuits, cigarettes, records, ink bottles ect.; storage boxes, mirrors, razors, radios, fans, travel bags and music instruments decorated with revolutionary motifs. Looking at the aspects of the everyday life these objects were involved in, even a Chinese that directly or indirectly experienced the Culture Revolution would be overwhelmed by the way how manipulation could be set through by taking over the design of artefacts of vital importance for domestic spaces, educational purposes, travelling and leisure. The exhibition explains the representative motifs that were repetitively in use: for example the rising sun symbolizing Mao as the “red sun from the east” or the three sunflowers meaning “the three loyalties of Mao, Mao’s ideology and Mao’s revolutionary policy”, which give details on the creation and the exploitation of this fanaticism of symbols.
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A corner of the section “Everyday”
At the first glance, one might have the impression of the total breakthrough of an everyday culture created by and for a political era, “the culture of the Cultural Revolution”, as the title suggests. However, once observed deeper underneath the flashy surfaces, the juxtaposed objects soon seem to be missing substance of real innovation or establishment. Besides the Mao-pins and Mao-Bibles that became commonplace symbols of the Cultural Revolution, none of any other objects could be strictly seen as an original invention by this revolution of culture. The major part of the effort was to bring motifs of propaganda onto the surface of the artefacts that were already in common daily use. For Mao, „a revolution is no dinner invitation, no article-writing, no picture-painting or cloth-stitching; it cannot be implemented in such a fine, leisurely and sensitive, moderate, civilized, polite, modest and large-hearted way.” Behind such slogans was a time of massive destruction. The “unsuitable delights” of cookery, literature, art and music were substituted by a totalitarian occupation with symbols of Mao’s personality cult. Which material culture, then, did the Cultural Revolution really generate, if the innovation was merely creating new surfaces and graphics for existing products with techniques that were in application already? To this question Opletal agreed that the title was rather a play of words and in fact he believed more culture was destroyed than established during the Cultural Revolution. His critical position is demonstrated in the section “Terror”, which visualizes the brutality conducted and the cultural treasures demolished during this period by showing giant documentary photographs of the “Struggle and Criticism Sessions” performed by the red guards and the demolition of Buddha statues, temples and churches. “Nothing much is left from that time except for some nostalgia” says Opletal. Indeed, gone with the Cultural Revolution was probably any proud and sense for rituals and costumes of tradition, and the material culture they were embedded in; along came the everyday culture the revolution tried to establish with all the surface adaptation and packaging, whose value however stayed frozen in this particular period of history that still silently occupies the mass memory of the Chinese today.


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Tea mugs enamelled with slogans “Long life great leader Mao”, “make up the mind, no fear of sacrifices, overcome the difficulties and go for the victory”, “Ten thousand years the central policy” ect. , Vacuum flask “good daughters and sons (of the communist party)”, package of biscuits Xiang Yang (following the sun)
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Porcelain brush holders “Long life Mao” and “Serving the People”, tea boxes, package of “Loyalty tea”, glasses with quotes out of the Mao-bible
The last section “Mao is dead, long life Mao” deals with the approaches towards the Cultural Revolution in the “post-revolution” decades. After over 10 years of development of Deng Xiaoping’s “market economy”, 1990s was the moment when the Chinese started feeling more comfortable to re-access the objects and images of the Cultural Revolution, nevertheless, in a somewhat altered context. Enamelled tea mugs, vacuum flasks, Mao-watches and alarm-clocks became the “typical” items being reproduced and forged in mass, partially for their light and easily-portable character appropriate for souvenirs. Mao’s portrait is imprinted on the 100-Yuan note, the biggest currency note available in China. Restaurant and shop owners use breasts of Mao instead of Buddha statues on home altar to pray for luck and wealth. Slowly, Mao’s myth as the legendary revolution leader shifted into that of a superstitious symbol of riches. In spite of the relatively frequent involvement of objects and issues of the Cultural Revolution in contemporary film, literature, art and design, official critical voices towards this period are still rare inside China. None of the functionaries invited from the Chinese embassy in Vienna showed up at the opening of the exhibition. “It takes three generations until the readiness for sober reflection is available.” says Helmut Opletal: “It took us that long as well for the processing of the Nazi-time.”
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Fashion designer Wang Yiyang’s concept store Cha Gang (tea mug) in Shanghai, 2009
Culture of the Cultural Revolution dissolves critical observation crystallized from the personal experience and passion of a China expert into a rich showcase of material culture particularly belonging to that political age. 35 years after the Cultural Revolution, presentations based on such offensive positions are not yet possible in China. This way, this exhibition contributes uniquely to the process of critical reflection and discussions on the Cultural Revolution by indicating the obliteration of culture through objects that were manifested.

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