Shen Jiawei: Behind the Canvas

Shen Jiawei, Behind the Canvas


Prologue: The Fate of a Painting


My oil painting Standing Guard for Our Great Motherland was created in 1974. Its extraordinary fate turned it into a cultural artifact that encapsulated the narrative of the Cultural Revolution.

Mao Zedong launched the Cultural Revolution in May 1966. It ended my dream of studying in an art academy, but turned me into a painter, moreover a very famous painter at a very young age. I had just graduated from secondary school, so I stayed on at my old school to take part in the Cultural Revolution. I belonged to the “generation raised under the red flag,” and passionately believed in communism. Nonetheless, prior to Mao Zedong’s severing ties with the Soviet Union, I had read extensively in Russian literature and was deeply influenced by Soviet and Russian art, and for this I was persecuted at the start of the Cultural Revolution. I subsequently became a member of what was called the “rebel faction” of the Red Guard Third Command. Our organization was part of the Zhejiang Joint Provincial Headquarters based on the campus of the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts in the provincial capital of Hangzhou. At the time Zhejiang was the only province in China where the core members of the revolutionary movement were art academy students and young teachers. It was for this reason that when the Cultural Revolution was transformed from an armed conflict into a cultural propaganda movement in 1968, the Zhejiang Academy became its epicenter for literature and art. The popular and influential oil painting at the time The World Can Be Changed and the Seas Transformed into Mulberry Fields: Chairman Mao Inspects Areas South and North of the Yangtze was the work of Zheng Shengtian and other young artists from the Zhejiang Academy. Also, faculty members and students of the Academy edited the nationally known magazine Workers, Peasants and Soldiers Pictorial in which my first painting was published.

During the revolutionary red tides of 1968 the whole nation was painting portraits of Mao Zedong, and my painting Chairman Mao Attends the First Congress of the Chinese Communist Party at South Lake was exhibited in my hometown of Jiaxing in Zhejiang Province. Zhang Yongsheng, the chairman of the Provincial Revolutionary Committee noted my work, and appointed me to the Academy to instruct a peasant artist on how to do oil paintings on that theme. Zhang was a graduate of the Academy, an artist who had been recruited to do political work. It was through him that I was able to spend over three months at the Academy practicing painting in 1969. During this time I had the special privilege of using the library even though officially it had been closed down, so I worked my way through all kinds of foreign art catalogues. I was also allowed to borrow these publications, so I practiced sketching by copying the images. As I was particularly fond of history paintings and journal illustrations of Soviet Russia, Zhang sent an old professor, Wang Chengyi, to provide me with some guidance and supervision. Wang was an eminent artist, who in 1957 graduated from the oil painting course taught by the Soviet artist Konstantin Maksimov at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. When I was relocated back to my hometown of Jiaxing, it turned out that the painter Hu Yuelong, a Zhejiang Academy graduate, had been assigned there to work, so I was also able to benefit from him advice.

The Cultural Revolution needed people with good painting skills to create large-scale works that would inspire the population. I was commissioned by an air force base to paint works commemorating the achievements of an air force hero, and during my six months working at the base I was able to learn much about painting. I had grown up in a small provincial city, and never had the chance to receive training in the fundamentals of art. My only influence was an uncle who had once studied art. I became a painter without having practiced life drawing, plaster modeling, or still life. In fact, many artists of my generation had become oil painters because of the Cultural Revolution. Before 1966 most households would have found it impossible to buy oil paints for children who wanted to study art: a person’s monthly salary amounted to the cost of a few dozen tubes of paint. However, during the Cultural Revolution all work units needed people to paint portraits of Mao Zedong, and on completion of the paintings artists were allowed to keep the leftover tubes of paint. This was why oil painting, i.e., Western painting, became widespread in China. This could count as one of the positive byproducts of the Cultural Revolution.

I later learned that Zhang Yongsheng had been nominated to become Mao’s prospective son-in-law, but because of his connection with the Gang of Four he was imprisoned instead for a long time. At the No. 5 Air Corps base where I had worked, all members of the divisional party committee were implicated in the Lin Biao Incident and were arrested. The charge against the division was that it had remodeled the Russian Ilyushin Il–10 ground attack aircraft in order to launch an attack on Mao’s private train carriage. All this happened after I had left. In fact, the hero whose image I had painted died while attempting to fly one of the remodeled aircraft. Nonetheless, most of the Zhejiang Academy teachers and students were able to continue with art careers. One example is the famous exponent of traditional art and professor, Wu Shanming. In 1967 he had been assigned by the Joint Provincial Headquarters to serve as liaison officer of the Third Command of the Jiaxing Red Guards.

Because the Marxist maxim to doubt everything became a mantra for the Red Guards, they constituted an obstacle to Mao’s bid to consolidate his authoritarian rule. To resolve the problem, from 1968 all middle school graduates were sent to work on farms for reeducation by the poor and lower-middle class peasants. Another option was for students to travel far from home to work on farms in remote frontier regions, and for this they would be paid a salary from the state. In June 1970 I volunteered for duty in Heilongjiang Province, and was assigned to the 42nd regiment of the 4th division of the Heilongjiang Production and Construction Corps. The base was 4,000 kilometers from home, and just ten kilometers from the Soviet border. All of the Heilongjiang regiments were stationed in Beidahuang (a.k.a. the Great Northern Wilderness), a vast terrain of black earth along the linked basins of the Ussuri, Songhua and Amur Rivers. Decades earlier when the Japanese Army had occupied the region and established the puppet state of Manchukuo, many Chinese were forcibly relocated there to cultivate the land. Then during 1957 and 1958, respectively, large numbers of former workers from the Railway Engineering Corps, and equally large numbers of volunteers demobilized from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) after service in the Korean War were resettled there to create farmland out of the virgin soil in a huge conglomerate called the Agricultural Reclamation Corps. In that period some farms were also converted into huge labor camps for criminals and so-called “rightists.” Dispossessed farmers from Shandong Province were also sent there. After 1963, when the Soviet Union became China’s new enemy, the labor camps were relocated elsewhere.

In June 1968, Mao issued a directive to the PLA of the Shenyang Military Region to take charge of the Agricultural Reclamation Corps and to reorganize it as the Heilongjiang Production and Construction Corps. When I arrived in June 1970, about 400,000 middle school graduates had already joined the ranks of the tens of thousands of resettled soldiers and laborers there. The Heilongjiang Production and Construction Corps consisted of more than sixty regiments. Each regiment of 20,000–30,000 persons was based at a former farm, and each company within a regiment had regular soldiers on active duty. While regiments had armed soldiers ready to fight the Soviet, most of the soldiers had no weapons, and were actually farm workers. Beidahuang was regarded as the nation’s granary. Crops including soybeans and rice were being used for foreign exchange, so agricultural production continued to be the real priority.

Propaganda work was a long-established practice in the PLA, and all top-level divisional political departments had a propaganda team with at least one art worker. After working in the Corps for a year, I was appointed to the post of art worker. My responsibilities included making slide illustrations for the model-worker slideshows that were screened by the film brigade, producing propaganda posters, and administering the blackboard poster work. I was also placed on standby to join the Art Training Class at the Corps Headquarters located in Jiamusi.

The Politics Department at Corps Headquarter had established a Art Creation Class where Hao Boyi was in charge. Hao had served in the marine forces before being recruited as a cadre in 1958, and joined the Great Northern Wilderness Printmaking Studio in 1960 as its youngest member. The principal members of the Studio were subsequently assigned to the provincial capital of Harbin to establish the Heilongjiang Provincial Artists Association and also to work as professional painters. Hao’s background facilitated his work of setting up a printmaking workshop that was housed at the Corps Recreation Club. Annual reviews were held from 1970 onwards to assess submissions of draft sketches, and it was through this process that talented young artists were identified and sent to participate in the Art Class at Corps Headquarters.

This meant that for about three to four months each year twenty to thirty students would eat, live and work together. It was not until 1972 that artists were permitted to sign their artworks, so all artworks produced were unsigned, and artists received no remunerations. Everyone however continued to receive his or her usual thirty two-yuan monthly salary. We discussed and corrected one another’s work and also worked collaboratively on paintings. It was like going to art school without having to pay tuition fees. There were restrictions on subject matter, but our source materials were derived from our everyday life experiences. Back then all of us more or less identified with the official ideology, but in the evenings whenever possible we would lock the doors and surreptitiously copy all kinds of prints that had been outlawed as feudal, capitalist, or revisionist. Joining the Art Creation Class was a stroke of good luck that was sheer enjoyment, and I formed many lasting friendships there. Hao Boyi was not a member of the Communist Party. His father had been executed by the government, and he had to be very careful to avoid running afoul of politics. Nonetheless, he ran the Art Creation Class successfully for a number of years and nurtured many artists. Some of his students are now university professors or officials in the Chinese Artists Association, and an even greater number are professional painters.

Every morning during my time at the Corps Headquarters, I began to make sketches almost as soon as I got up. By 1973 I had filled over twenty sketchbooks with drawings and studies for oil paintings, most of them being figures. So, by the time I painted Standing Guard for Our Great Motherland, I had developed considerable skills in sketching from life and painting. Most of Hao’s students were allowed only to work with printmaking materials. I was amongst a small group of students demonstrating strong ability, and had the privilege of doing oil painting as well.

May 1972 marked the 30th anniversary of Mao Zedong’s legendary 1942 Yan’an Forum on Literature and Art. To celebrate the occasion, Jiang Qing organized a National Art Exhibition, the first in six years since the beginning of the Cultural Revolution. That year my work was entered in exhibitions at provincial and military-region levels. It was then announced that in October 1974 a second National Art Exhibition on the same scale would be held. Cultural Revolution ideology emphasized the entrance of workers, peasants and soldiers onto the stage of the nation’s superstructure, so provinces nationwide organized the creation of amateur art by workers, peasants and soldiers.

Our Art Creation Class was in part such a response. We students had been sent to farm villages and military divisions, and had thus joined the ranks of the workers, peasants and soldiers. It was within such contexts that we were to extract subject matter from our personal experiences. However, there were regulations stipulating that we were not to paint ourselves, because as individuals we still ranked as “petit bourgeois in need of rectification.” Our works could only portray themes that glorified heroic workers, peasants, and soldiers. In 1972 I painted Tasting Snow on the Wanda Mountains was based on my experience of eating snow to quench my thirst while chopping wood, but the person in the painting had to be changed, because I could not portray myself in the work. A painter friend of mine had his girlfriend model for a poster painting he had been commissioned to do. The person in the painting bore no resemblance to his girlfriend, but because someone had reported him, the 100,000 copies of his poster were trashed. He was punished, and also was not allowed to paint for two years.

My friend Liu Yulian and I submitted a proposal at the annual review in the winter of 1973 to work in collaboration to paint Ussuri River Fishing Song. It was approved, and we went to do life sketches in Hulin County that was situated on the bank of the Ussuri. The Sino-Soviet border runs along the Ussuri River, and both Soviet Russia and China each had their own twenty-meter watchtower to monitor the other. We were granted permission by the garrison to ascend the tower for a look around. At the time there was a popular song praising the proud bearing of our frontier guards. When I climbed the watchtower, a line from that song, “Standing guard for our great motherland,” came into my mind, and I thought we could also use this as a subject for our painting. In February 1974 the Art Creation Class approved my idea, and work on the second painting began with Hao Boyi’s full support. Liu and I were allocated a small room in the Corps Recreation Club. He worked on Ussuri River Fishing Song, while I worked on Standing Guard for Our Great Motherland.

Liu and I were again sent to make sketches from life. This time we went to Raohe County that adjoins Hulin County. Zhenbao Island located in Raohe County had been the flash point of the Sino-Soviet border conflict five years earlier. Once again, we climbed the watchtower. The garrison consisted of a company of PLA troops, and the commander who was just two years older than me was from a worker background. He was slim and fit, and he treated the soldiers like brothers. I painted his portrait, and he became the prototype for the commander of my painting. A soldier nicknamed Xiao Wang also posed for me, and he became the prototype for the soldier in my painting.

While making my preliminary life sketches, I recorded in minute detail everything around me from the model of the rifles to the structure of the metal tower. In bitter cold temperature of minus 30 degrees Celsius, I stood on the ladder of the watchtower for an hour, sketching and taking notes. During this time Liu turned a telescope on the Soviet side and said that the Soviet soldier was watching my every move: obviously the man could not work out what I was doing. Liu and I also sketched the landscape along the Raohe City coastline, which later would become an important element of both our paintings. One evening on our way back to our lodgings, the Raohe County authorities detained us for questioning: they suspected us of being Soviet spies.

I spent a month trying out various compositions. For the final composition, because I couldn’t sketch or photograph the watchtower at a high altitude in a distance, I used the principle of perspective to approximate it. I had spent a week reading through an entire book on perspective in order to understand this principle in 1969. The book, The Study of Perspective, was a gift from my maternal uncle, and had been published by the Commercial Press in 1917. At the time I was always trying to find a balance and a point of convergence between the official ideological requirements (which, in terms of the arts, included the “three prominences” principle of the Eight Model Plays, and the combining of “revolutionary realism” and “revolutionary romanticism”) and my personal artistic pursuit (to secretly follow Russian art).

The crux of Cultural Revolution aesthetics lay in using “revolutionary romanticism” to overthrow Soviet Russian “socialist realism.” On the level of technique, Soviet Russian “socialist realism” followed the legacy of the system of realism that had developed from Courbet to Repin. However, for practical purposes, the defining characteristics of revolutionary romanticism were the qualities of “red, bright and shining.” The teachers at the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts accepted this, and had me using vermilion and chrome yellow to paint faces. But I was not convinced. During the 1972 National Art Exhibition, I saw the works of artists such as Chen Yifei and Wei Jingshan that maintained the tonal value scale of traditional realist painting, and I greatly liked these works. So the main influence on my creative works was this group of Shanghai painters. I also followed the principles of the Soviet school of painting: the direct observation of nature, and plein air painting to capture the qualities of natural light. Countless times, I got up at the crack of dawn and climbed out onto rooftops to sketch, seeking to capture the light on people’s faces and the shifting colors on the surface of the snow. In regard to the composition of Standing Guard for Our Great Motherland, the position of the metal structure of the watchtower allowed the main figure to stand out against the background of the sky, and hence naturally conformed to the principle of the “three prominences.” Setting the scene at dawn also allowed for the sunlight shining on the faces to create warmer tones. I thought there should not be any conflicts with the official guidelines. However, according to the sub-regulations of the time, the Soviet side had to appear under dark clouds, and also located on the right-hand side of the canvas. Failure to conform to any of these requirements made one’s work politically incorrect. In the military painter Guan Qiming’s famous 1970 work Heighten Our Vigilance in Defending the Motherland, the sky on the Soviet side of the picture is full of dark and foreboding clouds. In actual fact, the original color of the sky had been changed in accordance to a directive from Jiang Qing.

I completed Standing Guard for Our Great Motherland in July 1974. In keeping with the practice of the times I did not sign the painting, but wrote my name and work unit on the back of the canvas. In September, I was notified that the work had been selected for the National Art Exhibition. In October, I took leave and used my own money to travel to Beijing to see the exhibition. On the train I wrote or copied notes into my scrapbook of source materials to document the process I had followed in creating the painting. These notes were half true and half fabricated, because at that time any kind of writing, even personal diaries, could at any time be subjected to public scrutiny. Any politically incorrect words could bring disaster: it was imperative that even such notes conformed to official criteria.

When I arrived in Beijing and walked into the National Art Museum, I saw my painting hanging in the most prominent position of the circular exhibition hall, to the left of the center. When I moved forward for a closer look, I had a shock: the faces of the two soldiers had been reworked. It was obvious that my efforts to paint a picture as close to reality as possible had not been acceptable. Both men now had broader and fuller faces with fierce expressions, and the color tone had been changed to pink. Later, I heard that Jiang Qing had appointed her close confidant Wang Mantian to the position of National Art Director. Wang had organized a painting rectification team whose members were instructed to make changes to all exhibits that failed to meet the criteria.

I returned to Shanghai for a short stay. Based on my notes, Han Shangyi wrote a review of my painting in the newspaper Wenhuibao. In Shanghai, I met Chen Yifei and other painters at the Shanghai Oil Painting and Sculpture Studio. After returning to my regiment in November 1974, I learned that Jiang Qing had visited the National Art Exhibition and had stood in front of a dozen or so works to critique them. The art cadre Zhan Bula took notes on her comments. On coming to my work, Jiang Qing listened to a report on how the Corps had mobilized rusticated youth to create artworks, and commented: “They have determination, and are not afraid of poor living conditions and hardships. That they are able to create a painting such as this is no small achievement.” I was even more delighted to hear that He Kongde, an older generation painter from the Military Museum of the Chinese People’s Revolution, had spoken publicly in praise of my painting. He Kongde was highly regarded by art colleagues, but since the Anti-Rightist Campaign he had been subjected to persecution, and had only recently been allowed to have his works appear in publications, although without his name.

My painting Standing Guard for Our Great Motherland was published in newspapers and periodicals nationwide. It was also printed as a propaganda poster on sheets ranging from approximately A1 to A2 in size, and over 200,000 copies were made. When passing through Jiayin County in Heilongjiang in 1976, I saw a large copy of my painting was painted on a ten-meter tall wall that faced the Soviet Union. My original painting was collected by the National Art Museum in 1974. I received no royalties for the posters or any remuneration for the acquisition of the painting, but at the time everything we did was revolutionary work, and not for the individual. My work unit awarded me a third-class merit as encouragement, but there was no other form of recognition. The following year, when universities began enrolling students, I was not recommended for advanced studies. In 1976 when my work unit in the Shenyang Military Region was disbanded, I joined the PLA and worked as a set designer for their Qianjin Opera Troupe in the Shenyang Military Region.

From 1974 people in China came to detest Jiang Qing, and all sorts of negative rumors and bad reports were circulated about her. I did not like her because of what she had done to my painting. When the Gang of Four was arrested two years later, I was so excited that I painted a series of caricatures to celebrate. One of them, a cartoon of Jiang Qing, even won an award. In 1977, my father was arrested and incarcerated in the prison of his work unit. One of his crimes was that he had hung his son’s painting next to his office desk and told his colleagues that Jiang Qing had praised it. He was released a year later, without any apology or compensation.

In 1981, a friend in the Heilongjiang Provincial Artists Association in Harbin told me that Standing Guard for Our Great Motherland had been sent back by the National Art Museum and was in the Association’s storage space waiting to be picked up. The following year I went to recover it, and found that both the frame and stretcher had gone, and the canvas had been wrongly rolled with the painted surface facing inwards and tossed into a rubbish heap in a basement room. I unrolled it just a bit and saw that flakes of paint were coming off. When I took it back to Shenyang I did not dare open it, but just stuck it under my bed, where it stayed for years.

I had relocated to Australia in 1989, and it was only in 1997 when Guggenheim Museum in New York wrote to seek the loan of the painting for their large-scale exhibition, “China: 5000 Years,” scheduled for 1998, that I arranged for someone to bring my rolled-up painting to Sydney. I took the parcel to the Art Gallery of New South Wales, and in the Conservation Department, I unrolled it for the first time. Everyone in the room was appalled by what they saw. The painting was covered in soot, there was water damage, and two-thirds of the paint had flaked off. Working under the guidance of the Gallery’s professional conservators, I painstakingly restored the painting. I was happy that the faces of the soldiers that had been repainted by order of Wang Mantian had disappeared completely. By referring to my photographs of the original work, as well as to my extensive notes, I was able to restore my painting to how it had been originally created.

Because Jiang Qing had praised my painting, it was tainted by her ignoble stigma. In 1981 it was discarded by the National Art Museum and returned to my old work unit in Heilongjiang. Today Standing Guard for Our Great Motherland has become my most valuable possession.” – Shen Jiawei

March 9, 2007


  1. This essay was written for the painting’s second New York exhibition, held at the Asia Society in 2008. Its first translation by Valerie C. Doran was published in Melissa Chiu and Zheng Shengtian, Art and China’s Revolution. New York: Asia Society, 2008.
  2. In 2009 the painting Standing Guard for Our Great Motherland sold for US $1 million at China Guardian Auctions, Beijing. The private collector subsequently established the Long Museum in Shanghai in 2012, and since then the painting has been on permanent display.

Shen Jiawei’s Standing Guard for Our Great Motherland is featured in “No Point in Time”, curated by Dr Geoff Raby AO.

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