Traces of China’s Cultural Revolution fervor can still be found in Shanghai’s old lilong neighborhoods if you look hard enough – fading slogans of “Long Live Chairman Mao!” (毛主席万岁!) on shikumen facades, stenciled portraits of him in his wizened years on walls and destroyed ornaments in old villas.
While urban development has swept many of these away, once in a while, you unearth the unexpected.
At the end of an alley in Siwen Lane (or siwenli), captured in a large mural was a youthful Mao Zedong, clad in a traditional garment, posing majestically atop a hill. His left shoulder was obscured by a rusted wire frame while the light stench from the public urinal opposite wafted through.
Located in the ghost town that Siwen Li had become, Mao’s mural seemed fittingly nostalgic. Once Shanghai’s largest shikumen lilong with over 700 housing units, the neighborhood that had been built in 1917, left a deep historical imprint for the thousands of Shanghainese families who had at one point or another called it home. (I had included Siwen Li in my roundup of shikumens that were torn down in 2013.)
The mural was sandwiched between two residences, one served as a danwei or office. I poked my head through the open door and asked an elderly man in his 50s if he knew when it was painted.
Reluctantly dragging his attention away from his computer, he peered at us over his spectacles, measuring our intentions.
“During the Cultural Revolution,” he replied, then mutter “Red Guards.”
Upon closer inspection of the mural, one could see large patches of white paint that had been repeatedly layered decade after decade. Disturbed by a gentle flick, they fell off like scabs on an old wound.
A young woman in her early 20s passed by and stopped to join us. Her curiosity peaked; she pulled out her mobile phone and began snapping away.
“Can you see what the last two characters are?” I pointed towards the bottom. “It says ‘Chairman Mao goes to …?’”
She shrugged, having no idea what it was all about.
Behind me, the old man spoke as he took off his spectacles.
“Chairman Mao goes to Anyuan.”
Losing interest, he turned and walked back into his computer.
I asked his retreating figure, “What does that mean?”
At the peak of Chairman Mao’s personality cult, a Red Guard named Liu Chunhua (刘春华) (born 1944), then an earnest student of the Central Academy of Industrial Arts, was tasked with creating an oil painting showing Mao on his way to lead a strike in the Anyuan coal mines at the Jiangxi-Hunan provincial border in 1921. He expressed fear and awe of this overwhelming task but bolstered by his depthless adoration for the Chairman, Liu overcame his initial reservations.
“My family for generations were poor peasants toiling on the land of the rich. My father settled in Heilungkiang after he had fled from a famine in Liaoning. Often he would say to me, “Because of Chairman Mao, we have new China and live the good life we have today. Because of Chairman Mao, you, the son of a poor peasant, can go to college and learn painting.” (…) Never once have I become tired of looking at Chairman Mao’s pictures. On the contrary, the more I look, the more I feel that he is close to me. (…) The more I paint, the more I feel Chairman Mao is dear to me. Even so, using all the paints and brushes in the world I could hardly express my deep love and veneration for our great leader.” 
“Chairman Mao goes to Anyuan”, Maozhuxi qu anyuan (毛主席去安源), 1968
And so, Liu and a group of students from surrounding universities and institutes in Beijing channeled their collective passions into a singular vision.
“… (W)e placed Chairman Mao in the forefront of the painting, advancing towards us like a rising sun bringing hope to the people. Every line of the Chairman’s figure embodies the great thought of Mao Tse-tung and in portraying his journey we strove to give significance to every small detail. His head held high in the act of surveying the scene before him conveys his revolutionary spirit, dauntless before danger and violence and courageous in struggle and in “daring to win”; his clenched left fist depicts his revolutionary will, scorning all sacrifice, his determination to surmount every difficulty to emancipate China and mankind and it shows his confidence in victory. The old umbrella under his right arm demonstrates his hard working style of traveling in all weather over great distances, across mountains and rivers, for the revolutionary cause. (…) Riotous clouds are drifting swiftly past. They indicate that Chairman Mao is arriving in Anyuan at a critical point of sharp class struggle and show in contrast how tranquil, confident and firm Chairman Mao is at that moment. They also portend the new storm of class struggle that will soon begin.” 
Completed in 1968, the painting, in modern parlance, went viral. Not only was it replicated into over 900 million posters, it appeared on wall murals such as the one in Siwen Li, and widely displayed at party meetings, demonstrations and processions.  It was even portrayed in other propaganda posters where patriotic men and women were depicted carrying the ubiquitous painting.
Jiang Qing, Mao’s wife, had promoted the painting as model iconography that reflected Mao’s proletariat messages, with the same zeal she had for modern ballet and opera.
The painting also carried a deeper political message. The choice of Anyuan was used to publicly discredit Liu Shaoqi (刘少奇; born 1898) who, until the Cultural Revolution, was widely considered as Mao’s successor. Unfortunately, Liu and Deng Xiaoping both fell out of favor with Mao when they opted for more moderate reforms to correct the disasters brought on by the Great Leap Forward. Mao had feared that Liu and Deng’s policy shift would damage his legacy, and capitalized on the Cultural Revolution to regain and monopolize power. Liu became a target during the movements and was labeled as a traitor and enemy agent. Repeatedly beaten at denunciation meetings, Liu eventually died in 1969 after being denied medicine for his diabetes during his house arrest.
So why Anyuan?
Liu had played a prominent, some would say more, important role than Mao in leading the miner’s strikes in Anyuan. Interestingly, a poster produced in 1962 had showcased Liu amidst the ravaged masses, guiding them to salvation.
The painting of “Chairman Mao goes to Anyuan” in 1968 was to disprove the notion, as painter Liu Chunhua asserted,
“For a long period, China’s Khrushchev arrogantly distorted history by claiming that he, and not Chairman Mao, had led the Anyuan workers’ struggle. He made arrangements with a group of class enemies to produce expensive paintings and films and fabricate stories which portrayed himself, a scab and clown, as “the hero who led the Anyuan workers in struggle”. These intolerable crimes aroused our intense hatred. We, the Red Guards of Chairman Mao, vowed to do our part to correct this distortion of history.” 
In the time that we stood in the alley examining the mural and dissecting its significance, a slow trickle of passers-by came and went. Perhaps older residents recognized what youngsters did not: that the mural, ironically recovered after years of neglect, was a reminder of one man’s enduring hold on power despite shifting political landscapes. Similarly, as Siwen Li falls in a domino of old housing across the city, and lives continue to be upturned by a loss of history and home, the Party remains a constant.
1. Liu Chun-hua, “Painting pictures of Chairman Mao is our greatest happiness”, China Reconstructs October 1968, pp. 2-6
2. Liu Chun-hua, “Singing the praises of Our Great Leader is our greatest happiness”, Chinese Literature 1968, n. 9, pp. 32-40
3. “Chairman Mao goes to Anyuan”, Chineseposters.net
4. “Mao, Jiang Qing, Lin Biao (1966-1972)”, Chineseposters.net
5. “Comrade Liu Shaoqi and the Anyuan miners”, Chineseposters.net
6. Liu Chun-hua, 1968