Chinese artist recounts his life, including the one time he painted ‘X’ on Mao’s face

Chinese dissident artist Yan Zhengxue, 70 (William Wan/TWP)
Yan Zhengxue (William Wan/The Washington Post)

By William Wan and Liu Liu

BEIJING — Among China’s dissident artists, one of the oldest is Yan Zhengxue. Of the dozen artists we interviewed — for a story on the relevance of dissident art in China’s now vibrant and lucrative avant-garde scene — Yan was one of most compelling.

Now 70 years old, his artistic career has spanned the entire history of China’s Communist Republic. During a four-hour interview at his apartment — where he is often under surveillance by the government – he walked us through his enigmatic works, which combine traditional brushpainting and authoritarian motifs.

He recounted his years in prison and explained how he managed to paint and smuggle out almost 100 works through prison toilets. And he argued passionately for the continuing relevance of dissident art in the modern era. It was, in other words, a fascinating tale and a window into the cost, ingenuity and at times craziness required of China’s dissident artists.

Self-portrait, 1965 (Courtesy of Yan Zhengxue)
Self-portrait, 1965 (Courtesy of Yan Zhengxue)

As the son of counter-revolutionaries, Yan said he grew up scorned. His father had been a soldier on the losing side of China’s civil war, the Nationalists in their defeat by the Communists. Yan recalled watching a man from another counterrevolutionary family in their village bloodily beaten and pelted with feces. The red and brown, he said, remain one his first and most vivid memories of color.

He took up drawing as a child hoping an art career might help him overcome his family’s name. As a teenager, he was sent by his father to Shanghai to avoid starvation during the Great Famine of the late-1950s — caused by Mao Zedong’s disastrous farming policies. There, Yan earned a living painting portraits for strangers. He later received training at a top art academy and specialized in Chinese brushpainting.

Like most artists in China at the time, however, he spent the 1960s and 1970s painting the only things then allowed — portraits of Mao Zedong and propaganda posters.

“For an artist, to draw what someone else tells you, the same thing over and over, it was like hell,” he said.

Not only could artists only paint Mao, but party authorities had rules governing exactly how he was to be painted.

Yan said he was almost executed during one Mao job, commissioned by officials in Lanzhou city. Yan had painted Mao slightly from the side, with only one ear visible, following party tradition. But local officials, unaware of the rules, accused Yan of implying Mao was half-deaf and only willing to listen to one side of the story.

Making things worse, they dug up the Mao photo Yan was replicating and saw a criss-cross grid Yan had drawn on top to help him enlarge it proportionally. “How dare you to draw an X on the face of Chairman Mao,” he recalls them saying before lumping him in with other political prisoners awaiting execution.

“The only reason I was saved was a military man who knew something about art heard my explanation and convinced them,” Yan said.

When rules on art finally loosened in the 1980s, Yan joined in a budding Chinese avant-garde movement, applying his traditional brushpainting to abstract themes. Then came the Tiananmen crackdown, during which the government opened fire on its own unarmed citizens protesting in the square. Yan heard the news on the radio in his home village of Taizhou, in Eastern China. And that night, filled with anger, Yan tried to work his feelings and growing hatred for the party in this painting. The circles, he said, represented the eyes and cameras of the world looking on as blood filled the streets.

Painting of camels in Xinjiang (Courtesy of Yan Zhengxue)
Painting of camels in Xinjiang (Courtesy of Yan Zhengxue)

Soon after, his son died in a suspicious car crash that Yan blamed on police, with whom Yan had repeatedly clashed. And the two events combined turned Yan from an artist merely critical of the government to a committed hardcore dissident.

Over the past two decades, he said has been detained more than a dozen times. After a particularly brutal beating in 1993, Yan said, he filed a lawsuit against the government, an unusual act at the time, which Yan called “performance art.” In response, the government in 1994 sent him to a reeducation labor camp for two years. While there, his friends convinced the warden to allow Yan painting materials by threatening to contact foreign press and publicize Yan’s case even more widely. They told the warden that Yan needed the painting supplies to finish experiments for a contracted book on abstract painting.

But in reality, Yan said he used the brushes and linen canvases to paint almost 100 works criticizing the government, the Tiananmen crackdown and his own imprisonment. Many of the works from that time feature black suns, oozing veins and chains.

Painting (courtesy of Yan Zhengxue)
Painting (courtesy of Yan Zhengxue)

His paintings while in prison all feature an odd vertical dividing line. This, Yan explained, is because he tried to conceal the anti-government themes from his guards by finishing only half of his paintings at various times. To smuggle out each work, he wrapped them in plastic bags and stuffed them down his underwear. Each time he visited the outhouse on the edge of the labor camp, he’d drop the plastic bags into the vats excrement below for his friends and children to retrieve later.

(Note: While Yan’s family and friends echo his life’s account and records exist of his clashes with authorities and imprisonment, his time in the labor camp is difficult to verify with the authorities who imprisoned him.)

Yan also managed to smuggled out a photo of himself painting in prison. A guard, who knew Yan was an artist, gave Yan his broken camera asking him to fix it. With a half-used roll already in the camera, Yan set it to take several snapshots of himself before returning it to the guard. He said he told the guard he knew friends who could develop the guard’s vacation pictures free of charge and even throw in some enlarged copies.

After his release, Yan was imprisoned again in 2007 for “subversion of state power.” International groups including Human Rights Watch and U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi lobbied to have him released.

But this time in prison, he said, “I was tired of fighting. I lost hope.”

He said he tried but failed at hanging himself in his cell. He wrote out his life story — 300,000-plus words scrawled out over months on thin pieces of paper — and published it once he was released.

“To persist, one has to make a decision, that instead of defeating you by sending you to prison, they are going make you stronger,” he said.

Yan Zhengxue's writings from prison (William Wan/TWP)
Yan Zhengxue's writings from prison (William Wan/The Washington Post)

Since his release in 2009, Yan and his wife, also an artist, have focused much of their work on creating a statue of another political dissident — Lin Zhao, a young woman executed in prison in 1968 by Communist authorities. It isn't difficult, given his life spent opposing authorities, to understand Yan’s attraction to Lin.

A fervent Communist supporter in her early life, Lin spoke out against the government in the late-1950s when such criticism was briefly encouraged then harshly punished. According to accounts, after years in prison, Lin continued to write her criticisms of government. At some point when refused a pen, she took to pricking her finger and using a hairpin to scrawl it out in her own blood.

The statue is in some ways, he said, his important work to date and one he has tried to find a way to display publicly but has been stopped by authorities.

“She is the goddess of democracy,” Yan said. “My hope is that others will be inspired by her and also speak the truth.”

William Wan is The Post’s China correspondent based in Beijing. He served previously as a religion reporter and diplomatic correspondent.
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