Chairman Mao and the intellectuals: the opposition in disguise



Through Richard Baum, Ph.D., University of California, Los Angeles

Mao had directed his animosity against the bourgeois lifestyles enjoyed by the Chinese intellectuals of the Ivory Tower. Especially in the aftermath of the anti-right rectification and the Peng Dehuai affair, few intellectuals have had the courage to openly criticize the president. Avoiding open opposition, they instead turned to a more subtle and indirect mode of criticism.

Intellectuals have used politically incorrect works of art and literature to criticize Mao and his policies. (Image:

To avoid incurring Mao’s wrath, Chinese intellectuals in the early 1960s revived a literary tradition that had been widely practiced in the ancient imperial era. Disguising their critiques of Mao and his politics as historical allegories, fictionalized or satirical parables, they have produced a veritable blizzard of politically incorrect works of art and literature.

Painting of Peasants in China Youth

One example is provided by an award-winning and highly regarded painting that appeared on the back cover of the flagship magazine of the Communist Youth League, China Youth, late 1964.

The painting, which appeared to be a typical example of Mao’s preferred socialist realism style, depicted happy and healthy Chinese peasants working diligently to secure a bountiful harvest in a golden field overflowing with tall, bountiful stalks of wheat rippling through the countryside. broken. In the background, against a landscape of gray-purple hills, were three large piles of harvested wheat with a red flag sticking out of each one. In the foreground were scattered individual stalks and husks of wheat lying haphazardly on the ground.

After winning several awards for socialist realism, the painting was suddenly withdrawn from the exhibition in early 1965, and the issue of China Youth which presented it was withdrawn from circulation.

Learn more about the liberalization proposed by Mao towards intellectuals.

Message hidden in the painting

It appears that when a local cultural watchdog put a magnifying glass on the board, previously unseen anomalies were revealed. On the one hand, the outline of the hills in the background of the painting seemed to resemble the lying corpses of Vladimir Ilich Lenin and Mao Zedong, respectively. For another, one of the flag sticks protruding from the three piles of harvested wheat was smashed – snapped in half, with its red flag falling to the ground.

Now, one of the main tests of loyalty during the famine years of 1959-1961 had been the demand that cadres faithfully maintain the “three red flags” – the Great Leap Forward, the People’s Commons and the General Line of socialist construction. The fact that the middle flag, representing the people’s communes, was broken in two in the painting and dragged to the ground, suggests that the artist was making a political statement.

But the piece de resistance were the stalks and pods of wheat scattered haphazardly in the foreground of the painting. By examining them closely, we could distinguish a string of Chinese characters formed by the stems that had fallen not so randomly: Jiang Jieshi wan sui!– “Long live Tchang Kaï-shek!” “

One can only wonder about the fate of the unfortunate artists who painted this award-winning landscape.

This is a transcript of the video series The fall and rise of China. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

disguised literary works

Carefully disguised works of biting political criticism, parody and satire also appeared in Chinese media around this time. Three senior Beijing-based Communist Party propaganda officials have been particularly active in the production of such satirical works. Their names were Deng Tuo, Liao Mosha, and Wu Han.

Image of Mao Zedong giving a speech.
Mao had a reputation for making long, rambling speeches. (Image: Printing House of the People’s Republic of China / Public domain)

Beginning in 1961, these three men, using a collective pen name, wrote over 100 articles in the Beijing newspaper. First line (Qianxian), under the generic heading “Notes from a three-family village”.

Let’s take an example. Given Mao’s well-deserved reputation for his endless and rambling speeches at party conferences, it didn’t take a lot of the imagination to see in a fairly typical column, titled “Great Empty Talk,” an oblique critique of the president himself. .

Learn more about the outbreak of the Cultural Revolution by Mao.

Wu Han Opera

Perhaps the most serious literary affront to Chairman Mao during the revival of the Hundred Flowers in the early 1960s was a modern Peking opera titled “The dismissal of Hai Rui” (Hai Rui baguan), written by Peking University professor Wu Han.

His opera, written in 1961, was about a famous historical figure, a Ming Dynasty official named Hai Rui, whose deep and constant concern for the plight of oppressed peasants was legendary in China.

In the middle of the 16e century, at a time of severe national famine, Hai Rui had resisted local tyrants who had illegally seized land from peasants, returning the land to its rightful owners. For this, Hai Rui had received praise from Emperor Ming. But when he later begged the emperor to ease unreasonable tax burdens on the peasants, he was dismissed and unceremoniously banished.

Photo of Mao Zedong and his wife, Jiang Qing.
Jiang Qing found “Hai Rui’s Firing” offensive and tried to have it banned. (Image: Unknown / Public domain)

Jiang Qing’s objection

When Wu Han’s opera was first written and performed, it received positive reviews, especially from Mao.

But, the president’s wife, Jiang Qing, found it offensive. From Jiang’s perspective, Hai Rui’s story was a reactionary allegory. According to her, Wu Han’s interpretation of the circumstances surrounding Hai Rui’s dismissal corresponded too closely to the circumstances of Peng Dehuai’s dismissal in 1959. Both men had been widely esteemed for their integrity and courage, both had faced challenges. Local tyrants in an effort to right the wrongs inflicted on the peasants, both had asked the emperor to lighten the burdens of the peasants, and both had been sacked for their efforts, their reputation destroyed by imperial decree.

Pointing out these parallel circumstances to her illustrious husband, Jiang Qing eventually persuaded Mao that the opera was, in fact, an indirect defense of Peng Dehuai – and a slap in the face to the president.

Now fully convinced that the representatives of the bourgeoisie were attacking him from all sides, Mao’s long-simmering anger reached the point of igniting. He was ready to stop talking and start playing. The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution was about to begin.

Common questions about Chairman Mao and intellectuals

Q: Who wrote under the generic title “Notes from a Three-Family Village”?

Deng Tuo, Liao Mosha and Wu Han were three senior citizens based in Beijing Communist Party propaganda agents who wrote under the generic title “Notes from a village with three families”.

Q: What was the name of the opera written by Wu Han?

Wu Han wrote the opera titled “The dismissal of Hai Rui” (Hai Rui baguan).

Q: Why did Jiang Qing, wife of Mao Zedong, oppose the opera “The Dismissal of Hai Rui”?

From Jiang Qing’s perspective, Hai Rui’s story was a reactionary allegory. According to her, Wu Han’s interpretation of the circumstances surrounding Hai Rui’s dismissal corresponded too closely to the circumstances of Peng dehuaithe 1959 dismissal.

Keep reading
Mao’s twisted version of free speech
The events leading up to the “golden age” of Chinese Communism
Peng Dehuai: the intrepid Minister of National Defense


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