This iconic painting is famous to all Chinese people, across the nation and for generations. The art work is not necessarily the best aesthetically or accurately depicted, but because of the subject matter, it can’t be avoided: familiar to text books, national museums and many families have it on their wall. It’s The Founding Ceremony of China, a patriotic depiction of the grand ceremony on October 1, 1949 in Tian’anmen Square when the country was officially founded.
What is not so well known is the creative and political process behind it, and the fact that the painting went through several changes over the two decades after its creation. Because of changing political climates, “sensitive” figures were washed off or painted over, resulting in a “politically correct” founding of the country.
On the painting, Chairman Mao on the center left immediately catches the eye—he stands upright and is taller than anyone else on the painting, making an announcement of the founding of the People’s Republic of China on the rostrum of Tian’anmen. On his left, a group of the country’s leaders listen attentively with pride. Eleven of their faces are recognizable as vice presidents, premiers, chief justices and other leaders of the country. Down on the square, crowds gather to celebrate with a sea of red flags reaching all the way to the skyline, the whole country immersed in a feverish festival under a blue sky.
Commissioned by the Chinese Revolutionary Museum in 1952, Dong Xiwen (董希文), the then 37-year-old artist and professor at the Central Academy of Art, was selected for the important task of capturing history. Experienced in heroic portraits and revolution themed paintings, Dong was extremely grateful for this opportunity. Day and night, he devoted himself to research, sketching and painting, and finished the 4-meter by 2.3-meter painting in less than three months.
Dong’s depiction, to start with, was not that realistic. For example, on the right side of Chairman Mao, there is supposed to be a red pillar, which was omitted to give more space to the sky and the square. But people seemed to be okay with this impossible structure for a bigger purpose. When the famous architect Liang Sicheng (梁思成) was consulted, he said: “(the omitted pillar) is a huge mistake architecturally, but an equal success art wise.” In all the original images Dong studied, few of them were able to incorporate both the leaders on the rostrum and people on the square in a single shot. Dong took the liberty to portray both in his painting, with leaders on the left and the cheering crowd on the right; not the most balanced composition, but most appropriate according to Dong. Perhaps the most important change was the height of the Chairman himself. Eighty percent into the painting, a few artists came to visit Dong’s studio and suggested that Mao should break the law of perspective and be depicted as taller. At this point, Dong had to wash off the part he already finished and added an inch to the Chairman. Little did he know that he would have to do the same in the following years, repeatedly.
As soon as the work was completed, People’s Daily put it on their paper and People’s Fine Art Publishing House released various posters and new year pictures (年画), more than one million copies. The painting was also included in all elementary school text books.
But the care-free days for the painting were short. Only three years later, Vice President Gao Gang, who was the far right figure in the group of leaders, was removed from his position for “conspiratorial activities”. In the same year, he committed suicide. Dong was then asked to revise the painting and exclude Gao. Today, it would be much simpler with Photoshop, but poor Dong had to experiment on many of his other oil-painting works to make sure the overall effect remained unchanged. To fill the empty space, Dong added a pot of flowers.
In 1972, six years into the Cultural Revolution, Dong was asked to get rid of someone again. Liu Shaoqi, the former Chairman and head of state from 1959 to 1968, was accused of holding “right-wing” view points. Although Liu was dead at the time, some believed it to be politically incorrect to have him as one of the country’s founding fathers. Dong was suffering from cancer at the time and extremely weak after surgery, but the task was even more complicated than his first two, as Liu stands in the middle of the crowd wearing a blue suit. With the help of his son, Dong carefully removed the entire face of Liu and replaced it with another leader, from the back row.
Finally, Dong hoped, his work was finally politically correct enough to be exhibited at the Revolutionary Museum, but one more figure needed to be harmonized. The order came shortly after Dong finished his last revision, that Lin Boqu, the former secretary-general, who was on the far left side of the crowd, had to be changed. People suspected that the order came from Jiang Qin, Mao’s last wife, who may have resented Lin for his objection of Mao and Jiang’s marriage.
By that time, Dong was too sick to do anything. His student Jin Shangyi was invited to continue his work. Jin was conflicted about the task. In order to maintain respect to history as well as his teacher’s work, Jin proposed to replicate the painting to change the figure. On the replica, Lin was changed to a nameless soldier.
After the Cultural Revolution, the painting was finally permitted to return to its original state. But Dong’s copy suffered from so much revision that it was impossible to change back. Omitted figures were then added back to the replica. Nowadays, if you visit the central hall of the National Museum, you will see both the original work and the replica hanging on each side of the wall, proof of a time of political struggle.