Chasing Memory: The Portraits of Yuan Wu


Yuan Wu is a veteran painter based in Beijing (he also maintains an apartment in downtown Manhattan). He is old enough to have lived through the Cultural Revolution; his current project consists of one hundred epic portraits of prominent Chinese intellectuls murdered or forced to commit suicide during the Cultural Revolution (1966 to 1976), a period of extraordinary unrest in China, when the country’s intelligentsia was vilified and forced to endure endless hostilities and even violence in the face of the government’s attempt to permanently level all suggestions of hierarchy. Based on their intellectual intelligence and advanced education, the fate of professors, writers, and artists was particularly hard.

At the time, the existence of Chinese intellectuals were far from attractive; many were lucky to have escaped with their lives. Today, with hindsight, it looks a lot like Mao wanted to make sure his vision of a classless society was permanent. His idea was to enforce submission via constant punishment, using humiliation, imprisonment, and murder to do away with class distinctions that would separate scholars, scientists, artists and other intellectuals from the masses. As one might imagine, this did not work; the carnage that followed Mao’s arbitrary, unrealizable, and destructively whimsical notion that intellectual pursuit could be achieved by untrained people, or completely destroyed as something socially useless, was doomed from the start. This was true even though the idea itself may have had some theoretical merit, at least in the beginning of the change.

The problem is that theory often fails in practice. Sending the Chinese intelligentsia to the countryside pushed China’s intellectuals in the direction of a populism that was, at the least, a profound intellectual mistake. One need not be a rightist to feel dismay regarding the period’s extended chaos and class division, which the Cultural Revolution was responsible for, despite its intention of doing away with all hierarchical distinctions in culture. China, whose thinking has been communal for much of its history, was not so much imposing something innovative on society as it was forcing people to participate in a group mentality. Understood accurately, the actions taken in this period were close to populist, with unusual weight given to the creation of a completely non-hierarchical society—an achievement fiercely sought but, so far, impossible to realize! One can praise the intentions behind the attempted changes, but, up to the present, it has proven impossible to remake social relations reflecting an absolute equality,. Sending professors to raise crops in the fields of China, far from the academy halls, is a waste of talent, no matter how sincerely the government may have wished for a classless society.

There is enough distance now between the end of the Cultural Revolution and the present day that we can try to gauge the damage done during this period. Noted painter Yuan Wu’s painting project is a courageous attempt to remember a group of people who were persecuted, to the point of losing their lives, simply because they were talented and intellectual. At that time, the dislike of culturally gifted people reached a high point, and the reaction was murderous. It is hard to explain the extent to which disarray, hatred, and violence took over the country, fueled by Mao’s quixotic pursuit of continuous revolution. Some might argue that it was a well-intended, if futile, attempt to level cultural hierarchies. But the pervasiveness of the violence broke the country apart—even family ties were severely damaged, with children reporting on their parents.

The consequences were endlessly tragic, and the Chinese government has done its best to block any public acknowledgment of its memory. It is clear that these portraits will not find a public place for their display in China, so Yuan Wu’s outstanding memorial, beautifully painted and deeply moving, will have to be shown outside the country. Yuan Wu;s work, depicting so momentous and far-reaching a set of events, does not directly portray the violence done to the Chinese intelligentsia. Yet, at the same time, the portraits of the highly intelligent, creative people he is memorializing pay attention not only to their physical likeness but also, by implication, to the destruction of their lives. Indeed, the objectivity of the portraits extends our sympathy to the pathos of lost lives, Yuan Wu’s imagery portrays the unusual courage and remarkable character of this tragic group, now excised from historical memory.

Yuan Wu’s realism in fact has its roots in Chinese official portraits dating back hundreds of years. The size of the work is unusual; the very large dimensions of the paintings is a literal way of expressing their accomplishments and position. But those in power in China are very good at erasing memory; events that did take place are deliberately kept from being discussed: out of sight, out of mind. It is as if the Cultural Revolution never took plce. This is more than tragic; as a deliberate attempt to do away with China’s most violent history in recent times, it is a continuation of politics. How does a painter resurrect a past his country will not acknowledge? How does the artist create a political memorial when such an effort will result in severe punishment?

Yuan Wu’s extraordinary images must be viewed outside Chinese culture, primarily becaue authorities fear their presence might spark a discussion of the excesses of ideology. Good intellectual work cannot be accomplished in an atmosphere poisoned by rigid political belief; we need to suspend our opinions in favor of an open investigation, free of ideological constraints, in the arts and scholarship, in the humanities and sciences. If this is not done, the work reflects the reality of the government, rather than the truth of factual investigation. If we consider Yuan Wu’s paintings a form of open investigation, a search for moral truth, his achievement moves beyond the presentation of conventional truth to the greater truth of memory enacted in the form of a public monument, as these portraits demonstrate.

Because the paintings will not be seen in China, their social influence will inevitably be bluntted. It is puzzling to think of the artist’s body of work as provocative; they are only images of people. But the political circumstances surrounding these persons’ loss of life have made Yuan Wu’s paintings deeply moving. As portraits of independent intellectuals, the portraits demonstrate resistance to totalitarian culture.The artist’s faces are literally larger than life; they demonstrate the independence, the objective outlook of an important generation of free-thinking scholars. Yet the circumstances surrounding their death are horrific; their history cannot be changed. Although the Chinese government might not think so, no ideology exists in this remarkable sequence—only the radical implications of memory, the artist’s determination to keep the images of the dead alive. The context and origins of the paintings may easily be said to challenge Maoist ideology, but the works themselves are simple portraits. Their accusatory nature comes from the tragic circumstances surrounding the subjects. Thus, even if we cannot see the violence that overtook the lives of these people in the artwork, their images alone present a link to the terrorism of the time. In Yuan Wu’s painting, memory both keeps the victims alive and confronts the deadly forces they succumbed to. The imagination serves to reify a narrative authorities have worked hard to erase.

We can, through the lens of Yuan Wu’s work, explore the role art plays in keeping history open to interpretation. Events end, but art, hopefully permanent, maintains this lost generation’s existence in our thought. The Chinese have been very good at sustaining awareness of their achievements, but now they are often given to a revisionary history. The repression that continues to dominate Chinese culture is achieved by the erasure of facts. Silence enforces the active removal of truths that makes the government uncomfortable. Thus, historical memory becomes a political artifact, shaped by the ideology of the moment. Yuan Wu’s skill can certainly be discussed as an artifact of his art, but that would only fog the paintings’ greater purpose: the restitution of dignity to a group of people whose lives were cut short by ideology. While we cannot restore the dead to life, we can make sure that their existence does not fade away. Yuan Wu’s art serves to protect the dead from oblivion, a political oblivion the authorities are only too glad to arrange.

Words and images are the only means we have to maintain the existence of the artist’s subjects. The intellectuals we see in Yuan Wu’s art are lost to ideological violence, which changes quickly, according to the spirit of the time. If art cannot create change, perhaps it does something more meaningful: it can rescue people and events from disregard and indifference. Over time, the occurrences that so concerned us fade away, leaving only a trace of their existence. In response, we are obliged to fight the erasure of troubling events by making sure they are reconstructed and made alive again. How is this done? By their deliberate imaging in the arts. History establishes an awareness of what took place, no matter whether it be benevolent or driven by malice. Yuan Wu clearly wants to deliver an accurate view of what happened in a time of chaos and mistrust. He is making sure that his art matches the seriousness of the events he implicitly condemnds. The strength of his paintings stand up to his purpose of recollection. As a gifted painter, his art delivers a judgment hard to forget.

The events that took place during the Cultural Revolution are re-presented in the work of the artist. Nothing is lost; the paintings become an act of tacit rebellion. If we look at some of the individual portraits, knowing that the men were prominent in their fields, it becomes clear that their suffering was occasioned by an intolerance directed toward achievement and intellectualism, hallmarks of individual accomplishment, not progressive politics. In the portrait of Lao She,we see an active and well-respected writer who was forced to commit suicide in 1966, the first year of the Cultural Revolution. Active first in Beijing, in 1946 he visited America at the invitation of the government and translated Chinese works of fiction into English. In 1949, he decided to return to China. He then worked as a novelist and literary administrator for Chinese art associations. He was active in these responsibilites until 1966, when members of the Red Guards physically attacked him After further harassment, Lao She was forced to commit suiicide. In 1978, he was rehabilitated by the Chinese government to the status of People’s Artist. This is the short précis of a gifted, hard-working man whose life was destroyed by political extremism.

Lao She’s enforced suicide is an example of the brutality of the Cultural Revolution. His fate begs the question, To what extent can politics be made absolute. In the Cultural Revolution, the drive toward an absolute social fabric did terrible damage. Social relations were destroyed. Lao She was the kind of man who easily participated in public lfe. It appears he hoped to establish ties between people in the arts. But the groups he worked for would be seen as unacceptable during the Cultural Revolution. Writing was attacked as unnecessary and irrelevant. This resulted in extreme political judgment directed toward a reasonable man.

Lao She’s character is evident in Yuan Wu’s painting, in which we look at a self-composed person, with a steady, if slightly melancholic, gaze directed at his audience. It is as if he knew, ahead of time, of his fate. Yet his pose is far from conciliatory. The man’s attitude presents an emotional depth, one in opposition to the violent absurdities of the time. The painting asks its audience to maintain an awareness of a period when rules were abandoned. Thus, the portrait presents a tacit but powerful reading of someone destroyed by political purity. Even though this portrait, like the others in the series, depicts no violence, we know the circumstances surrounding their death. The painting presents Lao She as a serious, accomplished man who died for no reason.

Fu Lei, born in 1908, committed suicide in 1966. He was an educator, writer, and translator from the French, having studied in Paris. He produced highly respected translations of Balzac, Romain Rolland, and Voltaire once he returned to China, but was persecuted by the Red Guard for four days and three nights at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution. In consequence, Fu Lei and his wife killed themselves in September 1966. Acknowledged as a man of resolute spirit, Fu Lei is another example of a gifted intellectual whose life was taken because of political ideology. Here is another example of the many people contributing to the intellectual achievements of Chinese society who were destroyed. Fu Lei’s drive and achievement, exemplary of the Chinese intelligentsia, were simply erased. Liu Xing, a major contemporary novelist, was born in 1916. He joined the Communist Party in 1936, and lived in rural areas, among the farmers, for decades. His most famous novel, History of Entrepreneurship, concerned rural life. In 1966, at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, he was vilified as a “black writer” and a “reactionary authority.” A year later, he was accused of spying in Sichuan during the Anti-Japanese War, and his companion, Ma Wei, was persecuted to death. But Liu Xing refused to back down and maintained the truth under extraordinary pressure. He died in 1978, when he was 62.

In Yuan Wu’s portrait, Liu Xing has a dark complexion, a mustache, and a slightly worried look. White circles surround his eyes. It is hard for Americans to fully understand the extent of suffering Liu Xing and the other subjects in Yuan Wu’s sequence underwent. The cultural overtook China in a very destructivw way, and the lives of those considered here ahow that a small number of people had the courage to endure, even stand up against, the pressures facing them. Their scholarship and creativity exist in contrast to the tragedy of their lives. In the final portrait, that of Jian Bosan, who was of Uyghur nationality, the extent to which intellectuals were persecuted is again made clear. Jian Bosan was a prominent Marxist historian coming from Chengde, Hunan. He participated in the May Fourth Movement, and after the People’s Republic of China was established in numerous academic organizations. He worked as an instructor at Yenching University and Beijing University. Jian Bosan’s writings are widely accepted as outstanding examples of their field. But the Cultural Revolution resulted in Jian Bosun’s persecution and humiliation, and in 1968, at the age of 70, the gifted academic, along with his wife, committed suicide by taking sleeping pills. Yuan Wu’s portrait shows a determined, serious person with white hair and a severe gaze.

The impact of these tragedies, only a small sample of which is recognized in this article, cannot be overemphasized. Extreme politics in China was killing the best people the country produced. The Cultural Revolution lasted ten years, from 1966 to 1976, with the death of Mao. The biographical facts I have included in these capsule descriptions of the portrait sitters, some of China’s best academics, intellectuals, and writers, show the extent of their abilities and achievement. We must remember that their “crimes” consisted of intellectual independence and accomplishment  in the face of continuous hostility and violence. The situation is more than tragic, and the Chinese government refuses to face its responsibility in its violent treatment of a group of people they actually needed. The government’s intolerance was part of the spirit of the time.  Usually, cultural studies critique power rather than defend the status quo.  But the Cultural Revolution attempted to transform or constrain ways of knowing into what was deemed politically correct by demanding a dehumanizing adherence to abstract principles. Yet we recognize that scholarly investigation is sustained by a different set of principles, given to objective investigation. Its work requires intellectual inquiry, not capitulation to the time’s dominant politics.

Nothing can be done about events that have already occurred. But we can refuse to forget. Suffering gains dignity when people keep its memory alive; there is no other way of maintaining a useful relationship to the past. But the very narrowness of our constraints may prove an advantage to those who, like Yuan Wu, refuse to pass over the violent excesses of the Cultural Revolution. Given the Cultural Revolution’s historical distance—it ended in 1976, close to fifty years ago—it is important to make sure its destructiveness is not forgotten. The deaths and suicides that occurred from 1966 to 1976 resulted from a social ideology that used violence to justify its ideals. It is only a step from populism’s emphasis on the general population to the condemnation of those given to intellectual activities—writing, scholarship, research. Yuan Wu’s paintings make it clear, in their realism, that a generation of intellectually active people were killed in light of ideological purity. The artist’s memorials move beyond mere description to a truthful (if not directly indicated) reading of the subjects’ integrity.

As a project, the sheer number of portraits is to be admired. By painting so many subjects, Yuan Wu shows that the suffering was widespread. Moreover, the many works indicate Yuan Wu’s determination to present the extent to which a gifted group of people were affected. History can be maintained in several ways—as oral transmission, as scholarship, as art. Yuan Wu, a successful painter in Beijing and New York, has the technical skill to create paintings of major size and reach. His intentions are exemplary: the imaginative preservation of extraordinary people who were victims of social and political excess. Because the imagery, compelling in its detail and realism, is art, the works reach out to our imagination as a way of understanding history. Yuan Wu’s work is universal in the sense that it can be understood by pictures suggestive of the time. Although we only see portraits, our awareness of these people’s fate deepens greatly the sadness of the experience. Clearly, portraits will not be seen in China; they serve as an indirect condemnation of Mao, whose decisions during this time were terribly totalitarian and destructive. But recognition of the Cultural Revolution’s great damage is not to be found in Mainland China.

People who were twenty in 1976, when the period ended, are now approaching 70 years of age; soon enough, the population affected by the Cultural Revolution will pass away.  But Chinese memory is excellent, and, for the historian, the gap in time between the Cultural Revolution and the present day is short. Yuan Wu has painted the period’s victims using a detailed realism—his style, which emphasizes the integrity of the victims; communicates the tragic aspect of the time. Such a manner of painting is likely the best way of viewing the Cultural Revolution’s violence with accuracy. The deaths that took place must be remembered, and art is a brilliant means of remembering.  Yuan Wu recalls the past by concentrating on the face of his subjects.  His efforts attempt to establish compassion for the dead. The humanism of his art hopefully will receive recognition outside China, perhaps in New York City, where an audience knowledgeable about recent Chinese history can be found. Indeed, a sizable population of Mainland Chinese people exists in the city. Interest in the Cultural Revolution remains strong; books about the subject are written in Hong Kong and Taiwan. If historians cannot write publicly, then Yuan Wu’s efforts will make a similar point about this period visually. The artist is to be thanked for the persistence, skill, and emotional depth with which he has undertaken this important project.


Six Chinese intelectuals


Lao She (February 3, 1899 – August 24, 1966), male, formerly known as Shu Qingchun, courtesy name Sheyu, was a native of the Manchu Zhenghongqi in Beijing.

1939. The English version of «Jin Ping Mei» translated by Lao She was published in London under the name The Golden Lotus. This edition is the most authoritative translation of «Jin Ping Mei» in the West and has been published four times.

1946. Invited by the US State Department to give lectures in the United States for one year, and published the second volume of «Four Generations Together», «Stealing a Life» in the same year.

1949. After receiving letters from more than 30 friends in the literary and art circles, he decided to return to China. He left the United States in October and arrived in Tianjin in December.

1950. The Chinese Folk Literature Research Association was established and served as the vice chairman.

1953. Elected as chairman of the All-China Federation of Literary and Art Circles, vice-chairman of the Writers Association. Chinese modern novelist, writer, language master, people’s artist, Beijing Renyi screenwriter. The first writer in New China to be awarded the title of «People’s Artist». His representative works include the novels «Camel Xiangzi» and «Four Generations in One Hall», and the plays «Tea House» and «Dragon Beard Ditch». On August 24, 1966, due to the vicious attack and persecution in the Cultural Revolution movement, he was beaten and insulted when the Red Guards were fighting and criticizing. Lao She was forced to commit suicide by committing suicide in Taiping Lake in Beijing. In 1978, Lao She was rehabilitated and restored the title of «People’s Artist».


Fu Lei (April 7, 1908 – September 3, 1966), male, Han nationality, native of Jiangsu Province, Chinese translator, writer, educator, art critic, and an important founder of China Democracy Promotion Association (Democratic Progress) one.

Fu Lei studied at the University of Paris in France in his early years. He translated a large number of French works, including Balzac, Romain Rolland, Voltaire and other famous works. In the early 1960s, Frey was absorbed by the French Balzac Research Society as a member for his outstanding contributions in translating Balzac’s works.

Mr. Fu Lei is a magnanimous person with a resolute disposition. At the beginning of the «Cultural Revolution», he was severely persecuted, his house was raided by the Red Guards, and he was criticized for four days and three nights in a row, punished by kneeling, wearing a high hat and other forms of humiliation. Small mirror and a faded old Chiang Kai-shek pictorial). In the early morning of September 3, 1966, he and his wife Zhu Meifu both hanged themselves.


Liu Qing (July 2, 1916 – June 13, 1978), formerly known as Liu Yunhua, was born in Wubao County, Shaanxi Province, and is a famous contemporary novelist. He joined the Communist Party of China in 1936 and went to Yan’an in 1938. In the early days of liberation, he served as editorial board member and supplement editor-in-chief of China Youth Daily. In August 1952, he served as deputy secretary of the Chang’an County Party Committee of Shaanxi Province. He has lived among farmers for decades. Most of his novels take rural life as the theme, and his masterpiece is «History of Entrepreneurship».

In 1966, when the Cultural Revolution began, Liu Qing was labeled as a «reactionary authority», a «black writer», and «a party in power who took the capitalist road». He lost his freedom and was devastated physically and mentally.

In September 1967, the black minions of the «Gang of Four» spread everywhere that Liu Qing had engaged in spy activities in Sichuan during the Anti-Japanese War, saying that he was a «special suspect» and a «black hand» behind the Cultural Revolution, and he was locked in the «cowshed» again. , tortured for 4 years. During this period, his home was destroyed and his partner Ma Wei was persecuted to death, but he always stood firm, unshakable, uncompromising, uphold the truth, and resolutely resisted the cruel persecution.

On June 13, 1978, Liu Qing passed away at the age of 62.


Jian Bozan (December 18, 1968), Uyghur nationality, native of Taoyuan County, Changde, Hunan A famous Chinese historian, social activist, famous Marxist historian, one of the important founders of Chinese Marxist historical science, outstanding education Family.

Mr. Jian Bozan participated in the «May Fourth Movement» and the Northern Expedition in his early years. After the founding of the People’s Republic of China, Jian Bozan successively served as a member of the Culture and Education Committee of the Government Affairs Council of the Central People’s Government, a member of the Central Ethnic Affairs Committee, a professor of the Department of Sociology of Yenching University, a professor and dean of the Department of History of Peking University, and the vice president, as well as the Central Institute for Nationalities. Professor, member of the Department of Philosophy and Social Sciences of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, executive director and secretary general of the Chinese History Society.

His rigorous scholarship and prosperous writings are highly praised and praised by the historians. His main works include «The Course of Philosophy of History», «The Outline of Chinese History» (Volume 1 and 2), «The Collection of Chinese History», «The Collection of Historical Issues», etc. Edited the «Outline of Chinese History».

Mr. Jian Bozan was persecuted and humiliated during the «Cultural Revolution». On December 18, 1968, 70-year-old Jian Bozan and his wife Dai Shuwan committed suicide by taking sleeping pills and fighting to their deaths.


Ye Qisun (1898-1977), male, courtesy name Qisun, from Shanghai, physicist, educator, founder of modern Chinese physics, and a generation master of Chinese physics.

In 1918 (the seventh year of the Republic of China), he graduated from Tsinghua School (now Tsinghua University). In June 1920 (the ninth year of the Republic of China), he received a bachelor’s degree in science from the University of Chicago. In 1955, he was elected as an academician of the Academia Sinica, and was elected as a member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in 1955. Ye Qisun has been engaged in teaching and research all his life. He was the first to study magnetism in China. In his early years, he cooperated with W. Duan and H. H. Palmer to determine the value of Planck’s constant h, and created the correct method for high-pressure magnetization. From more than 200 atmospheres to 12,000 atmospheres. [Founded the Department of Physics of Tsinghua University and the Magnetics Special Group of Peking University. In May 1949, Ye Qisun was appointed as the chairman of the Tsinghua University Council to perform the duties of the president.

He attended the meeting of representatives of natural scientists and was elected as a member of the Standing Committee of the National Committee and Director of the Planning Committee of the All-China Federation of Natural Science Societies.

In 1955, he was elected as a member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and a member of the Standing Committee.

In June 1967, during the Cultural Revolution, he was beaten by the Red Guards of Peking University, imprisoned, ransacked his home, suspended wages, and reformed through labor.

From April 1968 to November 1969, he was arrested and detained by the Office of the Central Military Commission. After his release, he was quarantined and reviewed.

In May 1972, Peking University made a conclusion to Ye Qisun that contradictions between the enemy and ourselves should be dealt with according to the contradictions among the people.

On January 13, 1977, he was guilty of injustice and died at 79 years old.

On January 19, 1977, the memorial service for Mr. Ye Qisun was held in Babaoshan, Beijing.


Chen Yinque (July 3, 1890 to October 7, 1969), courtesy name Heshou, was a native of Xiushui County, Jiangxi Province. A historian of modern China, a researcher of classical literature, a linguist, and a poet. He has successively taught at Tsinghua University, Southwest Associated University, Hong Kong University, Guangxi University, Yenching University, Sun Yat-sen University, etc. Known as the professor’s professor».

He is the author of «A Brief Commentary on the Origin of the Sui and Tang Dynasties», «The Commentary on the Political History of the Tang Dynasty», «Draft of Yuanbai Poetry Notes», «Jinmingguan Collection», «Liu Ru Shi Biography», «Han Liu Tang Recording Dreams» and so on. After the Cultural Revolution began, Chen Yinque was brutally tortured. What saddens him the most is that a large number of books and poems that he has collected for many years have been looted.

On October 7, 1969, died in Guangzhou.


Rao Yutai (December 1, 1891 – October 16, 1968), courtesy name Shuren, born in Zhongling, Linchuan, Jiangxi Province, a modern Chinese physicist and educator, the first academician of the Academia Sinica, the first batch of the Chinese Academy of Sciences Faculty member, professor of Peking University.

Rao Yutai went to the United States to study in 1913; received a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Chicago in 1918; received a Ph.D. From 1968 to 1968, he served as a professor of the Department of Physics, Peking University; from 1933 to 1952, he served as the dean of the Department of Physics, Peking University; from 1936 to 1949, he was concurrently the dean of the School of Science, Peking University; The Ohio University is engaged in the experimental research of molecular infrared spectroscopy;

Rao Yutai is mainly engaged in the research of gas conduction and molecular spectroscopy. He has been engaged in the teaching and research of physics for a long time, especially focusing on physics experiments.

In June 1955, he was elected as the first member (academician) of the Division of Mathematical Chemistry, Chinese Academy of Sciences.

In 1966, during the Cultural Revolution, he was attacked and persecuted, and suffered a lot.

On October 16, 1968, when «cleaning up the ranks of the class», Rao Yutai hanged himself at No. 51 Yannan Park, Peking University.

In 1978, Mr. Rao Yutai was rehabilitated.



Texto en español