Paintings by Workers, Peasants and Soldiers

by Chun Wen

[This article is reprinted from Peking Review, Vol. 18, #1, Jan. 3, 1975, pp. 21-23.]

      LAST year’s Exhibition of Paintings by Workers of Shanghai, Yangchuan and Luta and the 1973 Exhibition of Paintings by Peasants of Huhsien County that took place in Peking were a review of the flourishing art produced by amateur worker-peasant-soldier artists. The eight paintings in the special section of this issue are mostly selected from these two exhibitions. [In this online version most of the paintings from this special section are interspersed with the text below. —Ed.]

      Paintings by peasants of Shensi Province’s Huhsien County, which has obtained good results in learning from the Tachai Production Brigade, the national pace-setter in agriculture, first appeared in 1958. At present nearly 700 amateurs are engaged in creating works of art. In Shanghai, China’s largest industrial city, and in Yangchuan, a new coal city in Shansi Province, as well as in the port city of Luta in Liaoning Province, more and more workers have taken to painting and other art activities in their spare time along with the development of revolution and production since the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution started in 1966.

      The paintings of Huhsien County’s peasants are characterized by their clear-cut and profound political content and fresh and unique artistic style depicting thriving scenes in China’s new socialist countryside. Workers’ paintings from Shanghai, Yangchuan and Luta have created the images of dauntless proletarian heroes who are full of vigour and revolutionary ardour.

      Both exhibitions vividly show that art has been liberated from the confines of a few artists’ studios. The working people of China not only produce material wealth for the society, but are also creators of socialist culture and art. This is a notable achievement of the profound revolution in the field of art under the guidance of Chairman Mao’s line in art and literature.

Why Do They Take Up the Brush?

      Workers and peasants in the old China could scarcely get enough to eat, so how could they have the leisure for painting? Now that they are emancipated, they feel an urge to write poetry and music and to paint to express their love for the new life and their confidence in a still brighter future. It is no accident that the Huhsien peasants took to painting during the Great Leap Forward year of 1958 when the countryside was bustling with activity.

      But class struggle has not ended in the historical period of socialism, and it is especially acute in the realm of ideology.

      After liberation, owing to the pernicious influence of the revisionist line pushed by Liu Shao-chi, Chou Yang and their followers, many Communists in literary and art circle[s] were enthusiastic in promoting feudal and capitalist art, but not socialist art. Before the Cultural Revolution started in 1966, works of art that preached feudalism, capitalism and revisionism flooded exhibitions and publications and infiltrated into the people’s life from all sides, corrupting people’s minds.

Marching in Step Leads to Victory.
by Kao Hung, Peng Pin and Ho Kung-teh
This painting shows Chairman Mao promulgating in 1928 the Three
Main Rules of Discipline and the Eight Points for Attention to
the Chinese Red Army in Shatien, Kueitung County, Hunan Province.

      Until 1964, most of the paintings Huhsien peasants could get in the bookstores preached the doctrines of Confucius and Mencius. They didn’t care much for these pictures which had no resemblance to their lives. Some peasants who liked to draw began painting pictures depicting their new life. These were warmly received by the masses.

      There is the story in Luta of a worker-artist called Yen Feng-chiao who saw two primary school children on the street while he was bicycling to work. Both children refused to make way for him even when he rang his bell. Yen fell from the bike while trying to avoid bumping against them. After picking himself up, he saw that they were completely lost in an old serial picture book preaching feudal and superstitious ideas. The incident made this worker-artist think a lot and got him to take his brush to fight the old ideas. He finished five picture story-books for children in succession in his off hours.

      One peasant amateur in Huhsien gave the reason why he took up the brush. He said: “We have to occupy the ideological and cultural positions in the countryside with socialism.” “We workers,” said a Shanghai worker-artist, “must keep an eye on what goes on in the superstructure. If we don’t, bourgeois ideas will spread unchecked and there will be a capitalist restoration.”

Militant Art

      The amateur worker-peasant-soldier artists work and fight in the three great revolutionary movements—class struggle, struggle for production and scientific experiment. With a pick, hoe or rifle in one hand and a brush in the other, they have produced a large number of varied works by adhering to the orientation that art and literature should serve the workers, peasants and soldiers and serve proletarian politics. Their art is closely coordinated with central tasks at different periods and has greatly promoted revolution and production, fully playing the militant role of uniting and educating the people and attacking and destroying the enemy.

      While the socialist education movement was being carried out in the countryside in 1964, an exhibition hall was set up in Huhsien County by 156 production brigades for class education. On exhibit were 1,006 picture story-books with a total of 12,000 pictures depicting the “three histories” (village history, family history of poor and lower-middle peasants and history of exploitation by the landlord class). An elderly poor peasant who had not gone through the exhibition the first day went again on the next. Standing in front of the paintings, he said tearfully to the youngsters around him: “Children, this is class struggle. Always keep it in mind!”

      Since the start of the movement to criticize Lin Piao and Confucius, the amateur worker-peasant-soldier artists have used their brushes in active struggles. In a very short period art workers among the Yangchuan coal miners drew or reproduced 4,700 cartoons in 70 sets and 130 posters which were put up at every pit entrance and the locale of the work teams. Members of a workers’ art group in the Shanghai Heavy Machinery Plant took their paintings to the workshops and the canteen for display. Standing in front of the pictures, some veteran workers poured out their grievances against the evil old society and repudiated Lin Piao’s crimes in toeing Confucius’ line—“restraining oneself and returning to the rites”—in his vain attempt to restore capitalism.

      “Literature and art are subordinate to politics, but in their turn exert a great influence on politics:” The Party committee of the Yangchuan Coal Mine asked the worker-artists to sketch 164 advanced personnel in the mine by way of commendation. When these went up on the honour boards, the workers were overjoyed and their enthusiasm for production increased. Some said with great feeling: “In the old society, the foremen kept close watch over us with batons. Now the worker-artists paint for us. What a world of difference between the old and new societies!”

      Born in the great era of proletarian revolution, the Great Cultural Revolution and the movement to criticize Lin Piao and Confucius, the art of the workers, peasants and soldiers directly serves proletarian politics, and is a vigorous new force with infinitely bright prospects.

The Lowly Are the Most Intelligent

      The painting Spring Hoeing was widely acclaimed by spectators at the Exhibition of Paintings by Peasants of Huhsien County. Under warm spring sunshine, a group of healthy and unpretentious women commune members are meticulously hoeing in a field of verdant wheat sprouts. Young swallows spread their wings for the first time. This poetic work was done by an ordinary commune member Li Feng-lan, mother of four children.

      In the winter of 1958, Li Feng-lan applied to attend a training class in art run by the county Party committee at a reservoir construction site. Jokingly, someone asked her. “You’re going to learn to paint? How will you be able to do it?” She said confidently: “Everyone has to learn before mastering a trade.”

      Knowledge comes from practice. Meantime, she has learnt to paint when not working in the fields. Diligent and hard working, she has turned out more than 300 paintings in 16 years.

Spring Hoeing.     by Li Feng-lan
[Note: Although the article talks about this painting, the image
here is taken from the book Peasant Paintings from Huhsien
(Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1974), p. 25. —Ed.]

      The revolutionary writer Lu Hsun knew what he was talking about when he said: “There are many monsters and devils in China who like to kill those with promise.” Swindlers like Liu Shao-chi and Lin Piao did just that. They peddled reactionary fallacies such as the theory of “genius,” the theory of “inspiration” and the Confucian fallacy that “the highest are the wise and the lowest are the stupid.” The growth of Li Feng-lan and large numbers of other worker-peasant-soldier artists and the many good works they have produced forcefully refute the fallacies of Liu Shao-chi and Lin Piao.

      The fiery struggle and the life of the people provide literature and art with an inexhaustible source, their only source. This is a truth. The most fundamental reason why the works of workers, peasants and soldiers are so numerous and are full of life is that the artists themselves know the life around them.

      In line with the policy of “maintaining independence and keeping the initiative in our own hands and relying on our own efforts,” our shipbuilders made a 24,000-ton tanker. In the course of construction, the workers had to hoist the ship’s 156-ton stern from the ground, turn it upside down in mid-air and then attach it to the hull. There was no heavy-duty crane on hand to lift such a weight. After repeated trials, they succeeded in using three small cranes simultaneously instead of a big one. The woodcut Lifting the Huge appearing in this issue was done by an electric welder in the shipyard. Deeply impressed by the workers’ initiatives this amateur translated that moving scene and the workers’ revolutionary spirit into a work of art. He took his draft to the dock and solicited the workers’ opinions and he also asked professional artists for help. Revised again and again, the woodcut was put up in the shipyard’s picture booth before the vessel was launched.

Lifting the Huge.     by Li Kuo-fu
Using three small cranes simultaneously
instead of one big one, shipbuilders
successfully attach the stern of a ship
to its hull. The artist is an electric
welder in Luta.

      The oil painting Continuous Fighting Without Rest shows a P.L.A. soldier on manoeuvres writing by a tank a criticism of Lin Piao and Confucius during a break. A package of explosives is his desk. His perspiring brow, tightly-closed lips, angry look, one foot set firmly against a tree and writing with great concentration all help bring this energetic soldier to life. The artist is himself a young P.L.A. fighter.

      If the artists had no practical experience, no direct experience in the life and struggle of the people, how could they turn out moving works such as Lifting the Huge and Continuous Fighting Without Rest?

Continuous Fighting Without Rest.     by Shang Ting
A P.L.A. fighter on manoeuvres writes a criticism of Lin Piao and
Confucius during a break. The artist is himself a P.L.A. soldier.

      In his Talks at the Yenan Forum on Literature and Art, Chairman Mao pointed out: “Life as reflected in works of literature and art can and ought to be on a higher plane, more intense, more concentrated, more typical, nearer the ideal, and therefore more universal than actual everyday life.” The principle that works of literature and art come from everyday life and are on a higher plane than everyday life has found vivid expression in the works of the worker-peasant-soldier artists. Huhsien County peasant painters have said: “We want to paint the reality and the ideal.” The paintings Scene in a People’s Commune, The Brigade’s Chicken Farm and Look! A New Hilltop! by a Shanghai worker in this issue help the reader gain an insight into the unique method with which these amateurs have successfully combined revolutionary realism with revolutionary romanticism.

The Brigade’s Chicken Farm.     by Ma Ya-li
The artist is a peasant in Huhsien County.

      From their numerous works we can see their pioneering effort and creativeness in breaking away from naturalism, formalism and stereotyped rules and regulations. We can also see how they have assimilated and made use of the traditional techniques of Chinese and foreign art under the guidance of the policies of “making the past serve the present and foreign things serve China,” and “letting a hundred flowers blossom; weeding through the old to bring forth the new.” The arrangement and the brush work in the traditional Chinese painting Look! A New Hilltop! and the way of cutting and the shading in black and white in the woodcut Lifting the Huge, as well as the use of lighting, colour and bold and heavy strokes in Continuous Fighting Without Rest are all evidence of this.

      The paintings by workers, peasants and soldiers have greatly inspired the professional artists whose mental outlook has undergone profound changes after being tempered in the Great Cultural Revolution and the movement to criticize Lin Piao and Confucius. They are now more determined than ever to integrate themselves with the workers, peasants and soldiers. The contingent of proletarian artists made up of professioiials and amateurs is growing. A more flourishing socialist art is in the offing.

On the Banks of the Laoho River.     by Cheng Min-sheng
Showing a scene in a People’s Commune.
The artist is a peasant in Huhsien County.

Contents page for this Peking Review issue.

Peking Review article list (in date order).

Peking Review article list (by subject).