The art of socialism


The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has long had an interest in the arts and culture of China. Seven years before the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the CCP held a conference in Yunnan at which Mao spoke about the importance of the arts to Chinese communism. Following a recent speech by current CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping about the role of the arts in contemporary China, some commentators linked the themes in Xi’s speech with the ideological heritage laid down by Mao.

Speech at the Forum on Literature and Art

In October 2014 at the Forum on Literature and Art in Beijing, Xi Jinping spoke to the assembled group of artists about the importance of art in modern China, and the relationship between art and the CCP (“Xi Jinping’s talk,” 2014). The event was followed by a string of articles published over the following four days by Xinhua that included extensive quotation of Xi’s remarks.

In his speech, Xi said that the arts are important to the culture of the nation and that they should “inspire minds, warm hearts, cultivate taste and clean up undesirable work styles (“Art must present socialist values,” 2015)”. “Socialist culture and art is, in essence, the culture and art of the people (“Art should serve people,” 2014),” and “Artists should not “…go astray while answering the question of ‘whom to serve (“Xi calls for artistically, morally inspiring art works,” 2014).”

An opinion piece in the South China Morning Post said that the speech was shepherding a return to “Maoist-style dogma” (Huang, 2014). To assess how closely Xi’s views align with those of Mao we need to now turn to the words of Mao himself to see how he approached the topic of the arts.

Mao’s views on the place of Chinese art and culture

One of the most widely know early works by Mao on the topic of the arts was his speech at the Conference on the Problems of Art and Literature in May 1942 in Yunnan (Mao, 1952). At the Conference, Mao spoke of the importance of art and culture to foster the CCP’s revolutionary values amongst the people. Mao told the audience that it was important for the CCP to develop art works that appeal to the peasants, and that “reflects and portrays the life of the people.” Mao made it clear that he believed that the arts were not apolitical: artistic production was a positive if it “encourages solidarity among the masses”; it was a negative if it “encourage[s] dissention” from the party line.

Mao seemed not to believe initially in abolishing all aspects of the arts and culture of China’s feudal period; rather, he believed that it was important to “incorporate the “more of less democratic and revolutionary nature” of China’s old culture with that of its new socialist one but to “reject its feudal dross” (Mao, 1967). The year before the launch of the Great Leap Forward, Mao publically encouraged artists to use their works to raise political questions for public discussion and to debate what is “right and wrong” (Mao, 1964). The speech spoke of “letting a hundred flowers blossom,” and allowing the “flourishing” of “different forms and styles of art.”

But what was initially seen as an openness to public debate about the CCP’s politics turned into a purge known as the Anti-Rightist Campaign, as the CCP turned on and persecuted artists that had taken the opportunity to speak with an independent voice. By the start of the Cultural Revolution, Mao’s stance against arts not in accordance with CCP ideology had hardened further. Mao made it clear to his Red Guards that the creation of ideologically sound art was not enough; they should also seek out and destroy arts that reflected old customs, cultures, habits, and ideas, which is exactly what they did. Vast quantities of old books were burned and old artworks were destroyed.

One aspect of feudal China’s culture that came under special attack from Mao was Confucianism. As far back as 1940 in his text ‘On New Democracy,’ Mao said that Confucian thought served the needs of the imperialists in opposition to the needs of new culture of revolutionary China and that it had to be “swept away” (Mao, 1967). During the Cultural Revolution, Mao and his ultra-leftist wife and leader of the Gang of Four, Jiang Qing, launched a campaign in opposition to Premier Zhao Enlai known as the ‘Criticise Lin Biao and Confucius’ movement. Mao and Jiang saw Zhao as a Confucius, a moderating figure representing the view of the intellectual elite, who was standing in opposition to their more radical leftist policies. To be called Confucius was to be seen as in opposition with the Cultural Revolution and Mao himself.

What has changed, and what has stayed the same

The most basic similarity between the position of both Xi and Mao towards the arts is that the arts must promote socialist values and serve the masses rather than the elites. In this respect, Xi’s speech at the Beijing Forum was in keeping with the core theme of Mao’s Yunnan speech. Xinhua, in a Chinese language story about the speech, even quoted two participants as having said that it “recalled the spirit” of Mao’s Yunnan speech (Ramzy, 2014).

One of the more curious parts of Xi’s speech was the comment that “a hundred flowers are growing in our literature and art garden and there are countless great fruits (Xi Jinping’s talk, 2014).” Despite openly advocating “discussion between different viewpoints and schools of thought” (‘Xi Jinping’s talk,” 2014) using the phrase “a hundred flowers” is an interesting choice when one considers that Mao’s campaign ended with the Anti-Rightist Movement, which violently purged artists who were seen to have been critical to CCP policy. Although Xi’s intent is publicly unknown, it is worth reflecting on the recent observation of a Renmin University professor who said on his Weibo that he’d “heard people talking about how there is a new anti-rightist movement underway,” which he was starting to believe himself (Bandurski, 2014). And the recent spate of arrests of artists working in an art colony in Beijing further highlights the risk that artists face should their social commentary drift too far outside of the boundaries set by the CCP (Chang, 2014).

His speech at the Beijing Forum is not the only recent foray by Xi into the topic of China’s arts and culture. About a week before the Forum, Xi spoke to a Central Committee study group about the importance of China’s historical culture to its current situation. A Xinhua English report on the speech (“Cultural reflection can improve modern governance,” 2014) quoted Xi as telling the Central Committee members that “A country’s governing system and capacity are closely related to its heritage and traditional cultures,” and “Party members to study all human civilizations to help inform the modernization of China’s government”.

And the speech at the Central Committee study group followed closely on the heels of a speech that even more explicitly stressed the importance of China’s cultural history. In September 2014, Xi spoke at the International Confucian Association in Beijing, at which he drew attention to the importance of Confucian ethics to modern day China:

“Confucianism and other schools of thought in Chinese history have competed with and complemented each other, constituting unity of opposites. Despite its long dominant status, Confucianism has been in a state of harmonious co-existence with other theories… Chinese communists are neither historical nihilists, nor cultural nihilists. We always believe… that we should approach traditional native culture and cultures of all countries in a scientific manner and arm ourselves with all outstanding cultural achievements humanity has create (Gardels, 2014).”

Xi’s suggestion that Confucianism has “complemented” the socialist school of thought in the PRC is in stark contrast to Mao’s denunciations of Confucianism, as previously discussed. Zhou Enlai, in the months before his death during the late stage of the Cultural Revolution, would likely not have agreed with Xi’s sentiment, given the charge against him that that he, like Confucius philosophy, should be cast out as being in opposition to the left.

What picture do these developments paint of the future of the arts in China?

The Xinhua report on Xi’s talk at the Beijing Forum listed Liu Qibao as being one of the members of the CCP leadership who was in attendance (“Xi Jinping’s talk,” 2014). Liu is the head of the CCP “publicity department,” which is more commonly known as the central propaganda department. During a recent inspection tour in the city of Tianjin, Liu “urged authors and artists to focus more on reality and create more works to promote Chinese values, Chinese culture and the aesthetic pursuit of Chinese people (CPC publicity chief stresses socialist core value for art, 2014).” The reports of the central propaganda department head stressing the importance of artists promoting “Chinese values” – or Chinese values with socialist characteristics – combined with two months of reports on Xi’s talks on the subject, suggests that the discussion about the role of the arts to the CCP is likely to continue for some time to come.

Additional references

Mao, Z. (1952). Problems of Art and Literature: Address to a conference in Yenan [sic], May 2-23, 1942. Bombay, India: People’s Publishing House.

Mao, Z. (1964). On the Correct Handling of Contradictions Among the People. Beijing, China: Foreign Languages Press.

Mao, Z. (1967). On new democracy. In Selected Works of Mao Tse-Tung (Vol. II, pp. 339-384). Beijing, China: Foreign Languages Press.


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