Fanatical Mao follower plans giant statue in Yanan

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , BEIJING

Thu, Aug 19, 2004 - Page 15

Wang Wenhai, the 53-year-old self-proclaimed Yanan Clay Sculpture King, has three goals. First, he wants to build a 140m-tall statue of Mao Zedong (毛澤東) in Yanan, the Chinese Communist Party's historic revolutionary base in the northwest. Then he wants to make a giant memorial commemorating Mao's philosophies, with possibly a nod to Karl Marx. Finally, if he has time, he wants to carve 25,000 tiny statues of Mao to leave along the route of the Long March, the 6,000-mile trek that members of the fledgling Communist Party made in the mid-1930s.

"If everyone were like Mao," said Wang, who has been making Mao sculptures for three decades, "the world would be beautiful."

Of course not everyone thinks so highly of Mao, who led the Communists to victory in 1949. Even Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平), Mao's most prominent successor, signed off on a judgment that Mao had made "gross mistakes."

But for Lu Jie, the curator of a huge contemporary art project -- The Long March: A Walking Visual Display, shown in Beijing and remote parts of western China -- letting people make up their own minds is exactly the point.

"We need to open a space to think about art, culture and history," he said. "Criticism is very important." He said that he spent a lot of his money to put on the show and also received donations from Chinese and foreigners. The artists, including Wang, are contributing their works and time.

Lu said he chose the Long March as a theme because no moment in modern Chinese history was loaded with more patriotic symbolism. Historically the facts are simple. In 1934 Mao and his followers fled their rural bases in southern China as the Nationalist army closed around them. During the next year they scaled mountains, forded rivers and crossed empty plains to reach Yanan in Shaanxi province. The journey was so arduous that perhaps only a tenth of Mao's original force of 100,000 reached the new sanctuary.

Layers of Propaganda

Less simple, though, are the layers of propaganda that the government has heaped on the journey. Hundreds of nationalistic films and documentaries have been made about the flight, and every year students across the country retrace parts of the route. "It has become very heroic and romantic," Lu said. "But people need to find their own interpretations."

Despite a slow cultural opening, Chinese academics are still forbidden to teach about many historical events and such public testaments are rare.

By bringing contemporary artwork by about 250 artists, some Chinese and some foreign, including the American artist Judy Chicago, to 20 sites -- mostly backwater towns along the Long March route -- Lu hopes to help that happen. The tour began last summer in Ruijin, Jiangxi province, where Lu and several artists engaged villagers in a debate about China's increasingly capitalist politics and economy.

The project's exhibition had visited a dozen sites before pausing in September for a series of shows, including one with Wang's statues of Mao in a tiny Beijing gallery, the 25,000 Cultural Transmission Center. In Zunyi, a town in Guizhou province where Mao wrestled control of the party from other aspirants, the Beijing performance artist Wang Chuyu had volunteers read from the Chinese constitution in front of a monument to revolutionary heroes.

The Proletarian Artist

The work of Wang Wenhai, who was born to poor farmers in central China, deals in memory. Despite witnessing scores of neighbors starve during the widespread famine that followed the government's forced collectivization of farms in the late 1950s, he became an ardent Mao follower during the Cultural Revolution. "In 1966 I became a Red Guard," he said. "I studied Mao. I carried out the revolution."

Wang had a perfectly proletariat background, and in 1970 he was sent to Yanan to work as a tour guide at a museum celebrating the party. There he met an artist who taught him sculpture, and he quickly applied the craft to glorifying Mao. On the back of many of his works he still inscribes the Cultural Revolution-era phrase "Mao is the red sun in our hearts!" But unlike most Chinese, many of whom suffered under Mao, Wang did not discard his fanaticism after Mao died in 1976. "Wang loves Mao," Lu, the curator, said. "He's totally devoted to his art."

No one who looks at any of the more than 1,300 statues by Wang questions his devotion, but since he began to collaborate with the Long March project his works have become increasingly abstract. Mao is traditionally portrayed in dignified style -- serene, thoughtful, usually with one arm raised in a gesture of imperial benevolence.

Lu said he hoped to take works and documentation of his project abroad. Several pieces will be exhibited at a biennale in Taipei, in October. For the large shows, he said, he will take several of Wang's statues.

Wang hopes to find a market for his works, which range in price from a few hundred to tens of thousands of US dollars. He said he needed the money to build the world's biggest Mao statue, to tower over Yanan.

"We should all understand Mao better," he said.