It Is Right To Rebel: Material Culture of the Chinese Cultural Revolution
Cultural Revolution Collectibles in Rago’s Unreserved Auction
14 February 2019
“Marxism comprises many principles, but in the final analysis they can all be brought back to a single sentence: it is right to rebel.”
- Mao Zedong, 1939
On October 1, 1949, following his defeat of China’s national government in a civil war, Communist revolutionary Mao Zedong declared the formation of the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
“The Great Leap Forward”, an early attempt by Chairman Mao and the Communist Party leaders to re-imagine Marxism, the Soviet model of economic reform, failed spectacularly. Meant to produce an economic boon and a surplus of production, instead, this forced and untested implementation of agriculture collectivism paired with an industrialization of the surplus workforce resulted in the Great Chinese Famine, the worst famine in recorded history, estimated to have taken the lives of between 20 and 45 million Chinese citizens from 1958 to 1962.
In the wake of this disastrous social experiment, Chairman Mao saw his power waning. His response was to launch what has come to be known as China’s Cultural Revolution in 1966.
The stated goal of the Cultural Revolution was to preserve a pure Chinese Communism by purging all remnants of capitalism and traditionalism from Chinese society, imposing Mao’s doctrine as the dominant ideology. Mao, who perceived the educated class as a potential threat to his absolute authority, inspired the army and peasant youth of the day with the promise that he would eliminate all differences between town and country, rich and poor. They provided him with the troops and support necessary to carry out a harsh and violent purge of people, cultural and religious sites and artefacts in the guise of a proletarian revolution.
Every revolution needs propaganda to prime and shape minds. Mao’s Little Red Book, a collection of his quotations was the first and greatest of these, an ideological field manual designed to fit the breast pocket. It was followed by the mass production of artefacts celebrating the Cultural Revolution that would support and strengthen a positive public opinion of the Revolution’s aims, as well as Chairman Mao himself.
These items, which range from large scale portraits of Chairman Mao to propaganda posters and porcelain figurines, were produced and distributed extensively during the ten years of the Cultural Revolution. Many of these posters and figurines feature prominently the ‘average citizenry’ that the Party claimed as its most valued asset; happy and strong laborers, farmers, and the members of the Red Guard amassed together in displays of unity and strength. They present as veneration for the purity of labor, the imperative of industry, the prominence of the military and of course, the nearly deified status of Mao himself, who is often depicted as a smiling and rosy cheeked giant, towering head and shoulders above the masses.
The Cultural Revolution came to a close in 1976 with the death of Chairman Mao, but artefacts of this tumultuous time survive to this day. A healthy market for these objects has sprung up among Chinese and international collectors and several shops dedicated to the buying and selling of them exist in Hong Kong.
On Saturday, February 23, Rago will offer for sale several artefacts from the Cultural Revolution, including the figurines, posters and tapestries you see here, in day one of our two-day Unreserved Auction.