Socialist Realism & Tiehua

When the Chinese Communist Party’s wave of revolution gained control of the entirety of Mainland China, the nation sought to redefine itself into a New China. The ways of the past were largely to be abandoned and the Chinese people would work towards socialism and perhaps eventually communism.

Nonetheless, with a government composed of revolutionaries a vastly different situation arose in tiehua and art at large: with the authoritarian nature of this party art had little room to resist the status quo. Yet, even more interestingly, China was now ruled by a prime demographic of resistors themselves, thus the focus of all art was to propagate their new ideology, to resist the “old ways.” Until Mao Zedong’s death, art would resist Old China, while promoting “New China” in a style seen in many communist states of the twentieth century: socialist realism.

The Shift Towards Socialist Realism

On a basic level, socialist realism in China (much like the government’s ideology) was heavily based on that of the Soviet Union, though it deliberately developed some distinct characteristics.

The type of nationalist art that was most heavily adapted and utilized was zhongguohua, or abbreviated guohua, a type of art meant to display and express a sense of Chinese nationalism.

The push for new Chinese art came with the party’s rule itself. A full campaign to redefine art was launched, seeking to promote a type of synthesis of both Chinese and Western art, though there was difficulty agreeing just how to mix them (Andrews 556). This will be discussed in more detail later, but the government and artists alike had a hard time creating a unique form of socialist realism.

At any rate, while the Chinese understanding of art was of course founded on Chinese art itself, many governmental policies seemed to favor overtly pro-Westernization campaigns. For example, by 1955 there was an implementation of mandatory classes in drawing from life in art academies (Andrews 566), which greatly differed from less life-like Chinese art.

Despite its western foundation and influences, even Mao Zedong himself favored a unique approach to the art form. Jian states, “Mao hoped that socialism would have its own independent and particular aesthetics not only encompassing revolutionary realism but also revolutionary romanticism to replace the aesthetics of capitalism” (70). Here, we see the precise influences Mao preferred China to develop art under. Though it is difficult even under such a planned state ideology to narrow down the reality of Chinese socialist-realist art, it is asserted by Lin that the Chinese variety was much more humanistic than its Soviet counterpart (41). In this sense, Chinese art had its degree of uniqueness.

In practice, revolutionary romanticism cultivated the socialist imagination of a passionate, romanticized paradise with its socialist heroes (Jian 72). Humanism surely became a central factor in the cultivation and creation of a state visual identity. This, of course, was part of the regime’s propaganda machine, which will be reflected on later.

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The early glorification of this New China is seen in a tiehua piece created in the mid-1950s. During this period, tiehua experienced a period of revival after a declining during years of wars and instability, as it was deemed an art form close to blacksmiths and the working class. Observers will notice that this example depicts something very different than old tiehua: there are great structures integrated with, yet dominating nature, and the intricacy is quite high. This is due to the fact that these early pieces sought to show a Communist-led China as great and a dominator of nature. Interestingly, this series depicted the white snake story (a popular Chinese folktale) in a longstanding artistic tradition, showing the blending of tradition and socialism the party strived for. Unfortunately, this tiehua was later destroyed during a period of policy shift, which will be reflected on later.

One possible influence of the romanticism and humanism of Chinese Communist visual rhetoric can be seen in the prose of Mao Zedong, who wrote:

I came here with many friends
and remember those fabled months and years of study.
We were young,
sharp as flower wind, ripe,
candid with a scholar’s bright blade, and unafraid.
We pointed our finger at China
and praised or damned through the papers we wrote.
The warlords of the past were cow dung.
Do you remember
how in the middle of the river
we hit the water, splashed, and how our waves
slowed down the swift chunks?
(qtd. In Barnstone and Ping 355).

Very visible in this excerpt is the idea of revolution being noble, Romantic, and generally an empowering and positive idea. This is done in a very realist, humanistic way on Mao’s part.

Of course this image is not representative of the Chinese countryside in the early years of communist rule—a brief discussion of subject matter under this genre is necessary.

As asserted by Lin, “in [the] early years of the PRC, traditional Chinese painting seemed to burst with ‘healthy, smiling people’; despite horrible times in the countryside” (43). It is widely accepted that policies such as the Great Leap Forward and other planned movements typical of Stalinist-Maoist leadership brought great hardship and famine, but this art cultivated only positive, glorious images of the nation.

One notable shift is the new focus on individual human figures, and especially their expressions of confidence and smiles. In the long Chinese artistic tradition (with the exception of art under the Chan Buddhism tradition), which was heavily influenced by Confucianism and Daoism, subjects in art were seldom happy and painting generally had a somber feel (Lin 45). In this sense, the CCP’s ideas of revolution came to fruition: Chinese art had changed radically in this way. A Soviet proponent of socialist realism, Maxim Gorky, had long before emphasized the importance of positivity and international spirit in the art form (Lin 45), which is clearly present here.

Artistic Struggles

Due to the immense amount of change and its inconsistent implementation, there was a great deal of difficulty in the Chinese artistic community when it came to creating this art.

A first aspect has to do with growing divisions within the Chinese artistic community. As stated previously, it was difficult for artists to reach a consensus on how much westernization and how much preservation of the Chinese tradition would occur. Adding to this, there was even a rivalry of sorts encouraged by the government between pro-western and pro-traditional artistic schools, with the more westernized side eventually rising as the victor, though some traditional aspects were kept for the sake of nationalism (Andrews 571).

It’s fair to say, however, that the CCP formally had policies largely against much of Chinese artwork. On a fundamental level, as asserted by Andrews, “both the practitioners of guohua and those with the means to purchase the paintings were generally considered part of the socioeconomic problem the Communists sought to eradicate (558). Thus, in the years ahead, a tricky and inconsistent policy of choosing proletariat and bourgeois art would ensue.

The impact of this systematic inconsistency is seen in the experience of Jiang Feng, who directed the Lu Xun Academy for art and poetry. While this man dedicated his life to the communist cause and was carefully selected to guide Chinese art towards socialism, he was condemned: during the Anti-Rightist campaign Mao and other officials blamed him for what was called the “total destruction” of Chinese artistic tradition (Lin 47). Despite the party favoring radical change, it also sporadically attacked officials for doing so in art.

It’s important to bring up here also that the Anti-Rightist campaign, and specifically the experience of Jiang Feng, helped fragment the artistic community: once Jiang was targeted, all of his colleagues had to either condemn him or be suspected as well (Andrews 563).

At any rate, the endless shifts in the party didn’t end there: what as considered “politically correct” also frequently changed. This became problematic and challenging under Mao’s idea that artists should “work for politics prior to aesthetics” (qtd. In Jian 62). Thus, artists weren’t even supposed to focus primarily on appearance, but rather the message, which varied heavily depending on the government’s position at any given time.

An example of this changing is the image of Lei Feng, a famously photographed “model revolutionary citizen” during this period, with a decent amount of popularity even today. According to Jian, “Lei Feng’s image, representative of revolutionary realism, is not and will never be finished because it always changes with political circumstances during different periods” (63). Here, it is seen that one figures image varied constantly.

Socialist Realism and Mass Culture in a Socialist Economy

An important consideration about socialist-realist art is the economic factors associated with it. Interestingly, the cultural weight in this sense is a similar concept to capitalist mass culture.

In reference to Stalin’s incarnation of socialist realism, Chegodaeva cites the altruism “he who pays the piper calls the tune,” which could apply to both a communist state and Western democracy (52). Essentially, whoever commissions art ultimately has the say in its contents in both types of systems. Nevertheless, the sole economic and political power of communist states makes the say come from only the government. On this, Jian states, “Authoritarian governance in China during the revolutionary era and its overwhelming influence on society made photographic representation a tool of political propaganda and a guide of public opinion” (67).

In this sense, socialist-realist art was much like that in more capitalistic countries; it sought to satisfy the needs of the masses and required just as much marketing as actual production (Chegodaeva 51-52). Granted, a majority of the demand here was what would make the government happy, not necessarily the populace at large. Despite massive influence by authoritarian communist parties, socialist realism also enjoyed a situation that wasn’t present in capitalist countries. As stated by Chegodaeva,

Money did not interest [communist parties]; the demands they made of art were somewhat different. Above all, they needed art to propagandize communist ideas or, more accurately, to create the communist myth, to serve as a kind of stage set designed to replace and conceal real life, to hide from the people the truth of communist power (52).

Thus, while constrained in support of ideology, artists also had vast resources and a lot of motivation on their patrons’ parts. Socialist Realism under Stalin’s regime, for example, proved to be especially effective in manipulating the masses due to the essentially unlimited resources poured into it (Chegodaeva 55). While art in capitalist societies was generally free of direct government influence, it was much more constrained by finances of patrons and artists, affording art much less elaborate, rich character.

At the same time, though, not all believe that art created under the backdrop of complete political control is truly meaningful, being only propaganda. This is elaborated on by Jian, saying, “when the first meaning of a photograph is to meet political needs, absolute ‘truth’ is effectively rendered a meaningless concept. Artistry was also abandoned during the revolutionary era” (61). The “truth” in Marxism-Leninism-Maoism was, in this mindset, not truthful and the expression associated with art was essentially killed.

In China, this seemed to take on such extreme levels that many citizens relied on the messages in art to guide themselves. Within this realm, the CCP had its wish come true. As stated by Jian, “Seeing replaced rational thinking. When red filled the visual field of the masses, the rich visual experience served to gradually discipline society towards unity” (73). In the CCP’s vision, unity on a path towards socialism was more important than the individual ability to think, which also explains why such vast resources would be “invested” into artwork. Despite the lack of freedom, the CCP needed to ensure that all Chinese citizens were thinking uniformly.

The investment in ideology and vast recourses put into art by the CCP are seen in the pictured example of tiehua. Depicted in realist detail is a young man braving the rapids of a river, with older, more traditional Confucian men in the background getting left behind. From the get-go, there is a clear influence on western-style realism in this art. Interestingly, more traditional character exists in the background, but this is to convey the message of this piece. Clearly, this young man is confidently and powerfully leaving behind the old ways of China. This coincides with the idea of art being commissioned by the CCP, who wanted the ideological message to be easily interpreted. The scale and intricacYouth Rivery of this tiehua demonstrate the many resources poured in to the art form: whereas many older pieces are smaller and meant for private display, this example is the size of a large wall and clearly reflects a lot of hard, diligent effort. This helped China display its greatness during the Cultural Revolution no less, when some of the most extreme examples of zhongguohua were created (Andrews 577).

Now, this all is not to say that socialist realism was not pleasurable to citizens in communist states. As stated by Chagodaeva, “[socialist realism’s] functions were by no means limited to mere “comprehensibility”: it also had to please, to delight, to be beautiful and interesting” (55). Being understood was one point, but this wouldn’t cut it, even in a authoritarian anti-capitalist society. Additionally, in China, says Jian, “the unity of revolutionary political content and the highest possible perfection of artistic form” were pursued (66). Again, more factors than ideology needed to be reflected in this art.

Overall, between the 1950s and 1970s, the ability to resist was, in a way, state-sanctioned by a CCP composed of former rebels, yet strict control over art forced to promote their ideology rendered art like tiehua a tool for engineering the culture of Chinese citizens. During this period, tiehua couldn’t resist, despite promoting forward-thinking ideas. The vast changes in art resisted the old, yet tiehua for example tended to prefer retreating into ancient times when life was simpler and rural. Though Mao Zedong adapted Karl Marx’s formally pro-Urban ideology, there was still a great emphasis on development and industrialization like the societies described by Marx. Tiehua, and much of Chinese art, lost its traditional character as a means of resistance and was rendered a tool of propaganda.

Works Cited

The Anchor Book of Chinese Poetry, edited by Tony Barnstone and Chou Ping. New York: Anchor Books, 2005.

Andrews, Julia F. “Traditional Painting in New China: Guohua and the Anti-Rightist Campaign.” Journal of Asian Studies 49.3 (1990): 555-557. Print.

Chegodaeva, Mariia. “Mass Culture and Socialist Realism.” Russian Studies in History 42.2 (2003): 49-65. Print.

Jian, Huang. “Photography and Ideology in Revolutionary China: A Critical Review.” Modern China Studies 23.1 (2016): 59-74. Print.

Lin, Xiaoping. “Challenging the Canon: Socialist Realism in Traditional Chinese Painting Revisited.” Third Text 21.1 (2007): 41-53. Print.