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Wang Qingsong
Image: DW/S. Peschel

How China is still impacted by its Cultural Revolution

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August 22, 2017

Cutthroat competition on the open market is just like the class struggle of the Cultural Revolution, says Chinese artist Wang Qingsong. His critical work is now on show in Berlin.


Artist Wang Qingsong was born in 1966, just after China's Cultural Revolution had begun, so he only experienced it as a young child. Although the revolution ended more than four decades ago, the artist feels that it still continues to shape China.

"We're still inclined to extremes. We always have to obey somebody and assemble behind someone. That's how we're raised," says Wang. "And that's true in all areas of life, including work, education and the economy. On the surface, it may look different, but the ideology is still the same." 

Wang Qingsong is currently presenting a large-scale work "Competition" as part of the exhibition "Working on History. Contemporary Photography and the Cultural Revolution" at the Museum for Photography in Berlin. The gigantic photo depicts roughly a dozen people pasting countless posters on the walls of a huge hall, leaving no space between them. Hundreds of ads appear on the posters, all from well-known companies like Leibniz, Dell or McDonald's - and they're all hand-painted and in the same format.

Read more: Chinese photographers confront Cultural Revolution in Berlin

Read more: China: 'The Cultural Revolution is long over'

What does this work have to do with China's Cultural Revolution?

"During the Cultural Revolution, everbody fought against everybody over political or cultural points of view,"  explains Wang. "And the same happens nowadays in our highly commercialized era. Now, they're all fighting in the economic sector, just like they fought during the Cultural Revolution. Where I live, for example, the little ads posted in the stairwell are constantly being pasted over. Now this is dubbed 'economic competition,' whereas back then it was dubbed 'class struggle.' But the way people fight against each other has remained the same."

The ads pictured in Wang's work were specially painted by team of poster artists. With their large lettering, the style resembles the one used on wall posters during the Cultural Revolution, which competing groups used to publicize their standpoints.

"Back then, we had wall posters, now we have ads. And the conflict is becoming more and more similar, with mutual defamation and even sabotage. I find that pretty interesting," says Wang. 

Regression in China 

Wang created "Competition" back in 2004, though he continues to address the extremes of Chinese society in his work today. The country with the world's biggest population talks about its "socialism with a Chinese face," says the artist, but what exactly makes it unique?

"There's no individualism in China, and a liberation of thought has not taken place. This ideological heritage of the Cultural Revolution still shapes our society in a negative way," says Wang.

He feels that the influence of the Cultural Revolution in China is currently growing stronger and stronger and that society is regressing.

 Read more: Facebook sneaks into China's online market

"There may not be deadly conflicts anymore, but the ideological climate is very tense. People working in state organizations or in the administration have even been asked again to criticize each other."

While many people do remember the past and are trying to resist this trend, Wang feels strongly "that we're falling back into the patterns of the Cultural Revolution."

Wang Qingsong has never talked with his parents about their experience during the Cultural Revolution. "They don't talk about it. What they experienced back then was simply too horrible. I gained all my knowledge about it from documents and material that I found myself." And he then transformed what he found into an artistic reflection.

Wang Qingsong, born in Daqing in the province Heilongjiang in 1966, is seen as an "enfant terrible" of contemporary Chinese photography. After studying oil painting at the art academy of Sichuan, he has lived in Beijing since 1993. In many of his works, he ridicules materialism and commercialism. In this way, he implicitly questions the development of Chinese culture. The exhibition "Working in History. Contemporary Photography and the Cultural Revolution" Kulturrevolution" runs in Berlin's Museum of Photography through January 7, 2018.

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