Chairman Mao and Intellectuals: Disguised Opposition


By Richard Baum, Ph.D.University of California, Los Angeles

Mao had directed his animus at the bourgeois lifestyles enjoyed by China’s ivory-tower intellectuals. Particularly in the aftermath of the Anti-Rightist Rectification and the Peng Dehuai affair, few intellectuals had the fortitude to openly criticize the chairman. Eschewing open opposition, they turned instead to a more subtle and indirect mode of criticism.

Statue of Mao Zedong made on hill.
Intellectuals used politically incorrect works of art and literature to criticize Mao and his policies. (Image:

To avoid incurring Mao’s wrath, Chinese intellectuals in the early ’60s revived a literary tradition that had been practiced widely in ancient imperial times. Disguising their criticisms of Mao and his policies as historical allegories, fictionalized parables, or satirical they produced a veritable blizzard of politically incorrect works of art and literature.

Painting of Peasants in China Youth

A case in point is provided by a much-praised, award-winning painting that appeared on the back cover of the Communist Youth League’s flagship magazine, China Youth, at the end of 1964.

The painting, which appeared to be a typical example of Mao’s preferred style of socialist realism, depicted happy, healthy Chinese peasants working diligently to secure a bountiful harvest in a golden-colored field overflowing with tall, abundant wheat stalks waving in the breeze. In the background, against a landscape of purple-grey hills, were three large piles of harvested wheat with a red flag protruding prominently from each of them. In the foreground were scattered individual stalks and husks of wheat lying randomly on the ground.

After winning various awards for socialist realism, the painting was suddenly removed from exhibition early in 1965, and the issue of China Youth that featured it was withdrawn from circulation.

Learn more about Mao’s proposed liberalization toward intellectuals.

Hidden Message in the Painting

It seems that when a local cultural watchdog took a magnifying glass to the painting, some hitherto unseen anomalies were revealed. For one thing, the contour of the hills in the background of the painting appeared to resemble the supine corpses of Vladimir Ilich Lenin and Mao Zedong, respectively. For another, one of the flag staffs protruding from the three piles of harvested wheat was broken—snapped in half, with its red flag drooping on the ground.

Now, one of the key loyalty tests during the famine years of 1959–1961 had been the demand that cadres faithfully uphold the “three red flags”— the Great Leap Forward, the people’s communes, and the general line for socialist construction. The fact that the middle flag, representing the people’s communes, was broken in half in the painting and dragging on the ground, suggests that the artist was making a political statement.

But the piece de resistence was the randomly scattered wheat stalks and husks in the foreground of the painting. By scrutinizing them closely, one could make out a string of Chinese characters formed by the not-so-randomly fallen stalks: Jiang Jieshi wan sui!—“Long Live Chiang K’ai-shek!”

One can only wonder at the fate of the unfortunate artists who painted this prize-winning landscape.

This is a transcript from the video series The Fall and Rise of ChinaWatch it now, on Wondrium.

Disguised Literary Works

Carefully disguised works of biting political criticism, parody, and satire also appeared in the Chinese mass media in this period. Three senior Beijing-based Communist Party propaganda workers were particularly active in producing such satirical works. Their names were Deng Tuo, Liao Mosha, and Wu Han.

Image of Mao Zedong giving a speech.
Mao had the reputation for making long-winded, rambling speeches. (Image: The People’s Republic of China Printing Office/Public domain)

Beginning in 1961, these three men, using a collective nom de plume, wrote over 100 articles in the Beijing journal Front Line (Qianxian), under the generic heading, “Notes from a Three-Family Village”.

Let’s take an example. In view of Mao’s well-deserved reputation for making long-winded, rambling speeches at party conferences, it did not take much of an imagination to see in one fairly typical column, titled “Great Empty Talk”, an oblique criticism of the chairman himself.

Learn more about Mao’s unleashing of the Cultural Revolution.

Opera by Wu Han

Perhaps the deepest literary affront to Chairman Mao during the Hundred Flowers revival in the early ’60s was a modern Peking opera titled “The Dismissal of Hai Rui” (Hai Rui baguan), written by a Peking University professor, Wu Han.

His opera, written in 1961, was about a famous historical figure, a Ming dynasty official named Hai Rui, whose deep and abiding concern for the plight of oppressed peasants was legendary in China.

In the mid-16th century, at a time of serious national famine, Hai Rui had stood up to the local tyrants who had unlawfully seized land from the peasants, returning the land to its rightful owners. For this, Hai Rui had received praise from the Ming emperor. But when he later pleaded with the emperor to relieve the peasants’ unreasonable tax burdens, he was unceremoniously sacked and banished.

Photo pf Mao Zedong and his wife, Jiang Qing.
Jiang Qing found “The Dismissal of Hai Rui” offensive and tried to have it banned. (Image: Unknown/Public domain)

Objection by Jiang Qing

When Wu Han’s opera was first written and performed, it received positive reviews, including from Mao.

But, the chairman’s wife, Jiang Qing, found it offensive. In Jiang’s view, the story of Hai Rui was a reactionary allegory. As she saw it, Wu Han’s interpretation of the circumstances surrounding Hai Rui’s dismissal paralleled all too closely the circumstances of Peng Dehuai’s 1959 dismissal. Both men had been widely esteemed for their integrity and courage, both had confronted local tyrants in an effort to redress wrongs inflicted on peasants, both had petitioned the emperor to relieve peasant burdens, and both had been fired for their efforts, their reputations destroyed by imperial fiat.

Pointing out these parallel circumstances to her illustrious husband, Jiang Qing eventually persuaded Mao that the opera was, in fact, an indirect defense of Peng Dehuai—and a slap in the face of the chairman.

Now utterly convinced that representatives of the bourgeoisie were attacking him from all sides, Mao’s long-smoldering anger reached the point of combustion. He was ready to stop talking, and to start acting. The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution was about to begin.

Common Questions about Chairman Mao and Intellectuals

Q: Who wrote under the generic heading, “Notes from a Three-Family Village”?

Deng Tuo, Liao Mosha, and Wu Han were three senior Beijing-based Communist Party propaganda workers who wrote under the generic heading, “Notes from a Three-Family Village”.

Q: What was the name of the opera written by Wu Han?

Wu Han wrote the opera titled “The Dismissal of Hai Rui” (Hai Rui baguan).

Q: Why did Jiang Qing, wife of Mao Zedong, object to “The Dismissal of Hai Rui” opera?

In Jiang Qing’s view, the story of Hai Rui was a reactionary allegory. As she saw it, Wu Han’s interpretation of the circumstances surrounding Hai Rui’s dismissal paralleled all too closely the circumstances of Peng Dehuai’s 1959 dismissal.

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