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China's Challenge: Confronting its Revolutionary Past

February 21, 2012

"In no country in the world is the problem of confronting a revolutionary past more challenging than in China," said Elizabeth J. Perry, Professor of Government at Harvard University and Director of the Harvard-Yenching Institute. "China's stunning economic ascendance has focused renewed attention both inside and outside of China on the legacy of China's revolution."

Perry spoke at the Watson Institute's Joukowsky Forum on February 13 in a talk titled "Anyuan: Mining China's Revolutionary Tradition." 

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In the 1920s, the former mining town of Anyuan in Jiangxi province was the site of the first labor movement in China. Former party chairman Mao Zedong was credited with organizing the strike and building on its momentum to carry the Communist Party to national prominence. Over the years, says Perry, as the Communist Party sought to justify its rule, this slice of history has been repackaged and deployed to suit the changing times.

In the 1960s, 900 million copies of the painting "Chairman Mao Goes to Anyuan" were produced and disseminated throughout China as stamps, posters and prints. The painting by Liu Chunhua depicts a young Mao standing confidently on a mountaintop, against a backdrop of cloud-swathed peaks. According to Perry, "Chairman Mao Goes to Anyuan" holds the distinction of being the most reproduced piece of art in history, and was responsible for magnifying Mao's contributions during the labor movement, elevating him to a quasi-religious status. This led to Mao's cult-like following, which contributed to the devastation of the Cultural Revolution.

Even after the Cultural Revolution, the Communist Party has continued to draw on a range of cultural resources to emphasize its revolutionary heritage. In the 1990s, "Patriotic Education" was championed, and in the past decade, the Party has promoted a "Red Tourism" campaign to encourage domestic tourists to visit China's inland provinces and trace the path of the revolution.

Today, Perry noted, 12% of households report that they regularly worship Mao. Altars with Mao's figure or portrait are commonplace, and in towns like Anyuan, people light joss sticks and set off fireworks to celebrate Mao's legacy. Perry suggested that as China looks towards the future, the Communist Party is working to ensure that the revolution's heritage becomes interwoven into the fabric of the country's culture.

Elizabeth Perry's talk was a Year of China event, co-sponsored by the East Asian Studies and History Departments, as well as the Cogut Center for the Humanities and the Watson Institute for International Studies.

By Watson Institute Student Rapporteur Kai Herng Loh '14