EIJING, Aug. 17 - Wang Wenhai, the 53-year-old
self-proclaimed Yanan Clay Sculpture King, has three goals. First,
he wants to build a 426-foot-tall statue of Mao Zedong 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-1930's.
"If everyone were like Mao," said Mr. Wang, who has been making
Mao sculptures for three decades, "the world would be
Of course not everyone thinks so highly Mao, who led the
Communists to victory in 1949. Even Deng Xiaoping, Mao's most
prominent successor, signed off on a judgment that Mao had made
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 Mr.
Wang, are contributing their works and time.
Mr. 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.
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," Mr. 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 - Mr. Lu hopes to help that happen. The tour began last summer
in Ruijin, Jiangxi Province, where Mr. 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 Mr. 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.
Other pieces examine the relationship between memory and myth.
Qin Ga, a performance artist from Inner Mongolia, is tracking the
project's progress getting a map of its stops tattooed on his back,
physically creating a "site of collective and individual memory,"
said the project's Web site, www.longmarchfoundation.org.
The work of Wang Wenhai, who was born to poor farmers in central
China, also 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 1950's, 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
Mr. 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, Mr. Wang did not discard his fanaticism after
Mao died in 1976. "Wang loves Mao," Mr. 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 Mr.
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. But several of Mr. Wang's recent works have stripped
away Mao's facial features or show him lying in bourgeois luxury.
"This is so people can imagine their own Mao," he said. "They should
think about what kind of person Mao was."
Mr. Lu said he hoped to take works and documentation of his
project abroad. Several pieces will be exhibited at a biennale in
Taipei, Taiwan, in October. For the large shows, he said, he will
take several of Mr. Wang's statues.
Mr. Wang is happy about that. Partly he wants to share his
devotion to Mao, but he also hopes to find a market for his works,
which range in price from a few hundred to tens of thousands of
dollars. He said he needed the money to build the world's biggest
Mao statue, to tower over Yanan at 426 feet.
"We should all understand Mao better," he said.