co-curator, Art and China's Revolution
Mr. Zheng, who today is managing editor of the Vancouver-based Yishu journal of contemporary Chinese art was himself, I learned, an artist and art teacher during the Cultural Revolution. He was gracious to revisit that period and to share his personal experiences with us. Growing up in a family of artists, Zheng says he painted from a young age, and perhaps always had a sense he was destined to be an artist. After earning his degree from the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts in Hangzhou, he began to teach there. He says he could sense the changes which would lead to the Cultural Revolution in 1964; that, really, the changes in culture, in attitudes, began to change at that time, two years before the Revolution was formally announced. The government-controlled media began to criticize traditional culture and historical arts, and Zheng, being a young artist, felt he was on the side of the revolution. What’s wrong with being excited for the new? For being excited for your country’s noble and powerful movement forward into the future? As the Cultural Revolution began in earnest, however, and self-appointed Red Guards began wreaking havoc throughout the country, Zheng found he could not abide their methods; he says he agreed with the basic notions of the Revolution, but not with the violence. The Cultural Revolution was formally announced in Beijing on May 16, 1966. By July, the riots spread to Hangzhou. Later that year, Zheng was arrested, or kidnapped, by a group of Red Guards, several of his students among them. They accused him of not being revolutionary enough, and locked him in a building on campus which he describes as a cow shed. For three months, he was humiliated and criticized in public, forced to clean the campus and engage in other forced labor, and kept in this cow shed. Let free after only three months – many of his colleagues were kept for up to two years; many many people in other parts of the country suffered far worse fates – he was made to work in the cafeteria serving rice congee, and was finally allowed to return to work as a teacher some months later.