Confucius and Mao at the Mall

On a typically muggy day in Chongqing, a heartland metropolis that has grown so fast it awes even the Chinese, I spent a morning in a sculpture studio set high on a bluff above the Yangtze River. On the grounds of the studio complex — a decommissioned state-owned cup-and-bowl plant still named the Chongqing Industrial Enamel Factory — artist Zhang Xiang showed me his latest creation-in-progress, a clay mock-up of a frieze propped against the factory wall. The frieze and its accompanying sculpture presented the Song dynasty general An Bing as an avatar of benevolent authority: the towering commander, with neatly-trimmed mustache, flowing beard, and dramatic cape, is portrayed handing out grain to the region’s children and elderly, who line up to thank him. The sculptor, a youthful 35, dressed in hip gray sneakers with a matching gray backpack, told me that he was particularly proud of this work, because it had afforded him a degree of autonomy rare in government commissions.

The People’s Republic of China has always sponsored public art. But a new kind of work is proliferating amidst the greatest city-building binge in human history.

State-sponsored public art has long been woven into the urban fabric of the People’s Republic of China, but such works have proliferated in recent decades as the country has embarked on the greatest city-building binge in human history. For residents of cities like Chongqing and Shanghai, propagandistic political imagery like that in Zhang Xiang’s An Bing series has become as ubiquitous as capitalist advertisements — in fact, the two often alternate in the ads that flash across flat-screen TVs in every subway car and city bus. One minute a smiling animated sheep is beckoning viewers to dine at a local hotpot chain; the next, a computer-graphics montage shows shiny molten metal pouring into a mold and emerging as a mighty hammer and sickle that rises triumphantly over the city. At first glance, the figure on the billboard looks like a happy little boy rendered in trendy kawaii style. Look again, and he is revealed to be rosy-cheeked Lei Feng, the model soldier of Maoist propaganda, wearing his trademark winter hat with ear-flaps and toting an automatic weapon.

Mao regarded his revolution as an historic rupture. But the Party now presents its regime as a restoration, returning China to its traditional place as the world’s largest economy and most powerful state. In the last fifteen years or so, official edicts have elevated numerous philosophers and statesmen from the ages of the emperors — including Confucius and An Bing — to secular sainthood, part of a growing pre-Communist pantheon that emphasizes parallels between the wealthy and powerful Middle Kingdom that endured for millennia before Western imperialism, and the nation eclipsing the West today. The government has an ambitious ideological agenda to push and full coffers from the state-capitalist boom. For China’s artists, there’s never been more money to be made in Communist art.

For China’s artists, there’s never been more money to be made in Communist and traditionalist art.

Zhang Xiang is a prolific sculptor of Mao Zedongs and Deng Xiaopings, and makes nonfigurative assemblages and installations as well (such as his recent massive ball of recycled clothing tied together with ropes). For him, the pleasure of the project he showed me lay in the convenient fact that no period portraits of An Bing exist, leaving room for wide creative license. (The only information about the general’s physical appearance comes from a medieval poem that, predictably, describes him as tall and handsome.) By contrast, official images of Mao and Deng are hemmed in by long lists of regulations. On canvas, paramount leaders always appear bathed in light, like Catholic saints in European art; Mao is never portrayed in any medium, including the lithographic portraits reproduced on every denomination of Chinese paper currency, without his trademark chin mole.

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