It is a masterpiece of propaganda—a work that amplified the goals of the Chinese Communist Party.
By Dr. Kristen Loring Brennan
Blue skies with a perfect scattering of clouds illuminate the Chinese Communist Party leader, Chairman Mao Zedong who is depicted under giant red lanterns and palatial red columns, signaling a Chinese celebration of historical importance. Standing atop Tiananmen (the Gate of Heavenly Peace) in Beijing, Mao is depicted announcing the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on October 1, 1949. Following World War II and a lengthy civil war, the Chinese Communist Party was victorious over the Nationalists, who retreated to Taiwan and the Communists, led by Mao, took control of the nation.
Dong Xiwen’s Founding of the Nation depicts the day of his inaugural address. Pots of chrysanthemums in the lower right mark the autumn day, while a gentle breeze lifts the flags over the ranks assembled below. Several Communist dignitaries are pictured standing behind Mao, smiling in support and cooperation as he addresses the nation through shiny microphones.
The work was reproduced as a poster and published in newspapers and magazines to celebrate the fourth anniversary of the founding of the PRC. It was revised and modified five times in the following decades by Dong and his students, leaving two versions of the painting on canvas. The original version no longer exists; this painting is a copy based on one of his reworked versions. It is a masterpiece of propaganda—a work that amplified the goals of the Chinese Communist Party and offered a model for artists in the years to come.
A Monumental History Painting
Founding of the Nation is considered a monumental history painting—a composition on a grand scale that recalls the European tradition of history painting. Artists in the Soviet Union adapted this style of oil painting for the socialist cause, which then inspired Chinese artists who sought a form of expression suitable for political propaganda or as education, such as commemorating a historical event. Their goal was to create images that were both realistic and idealized at the same time.
While its simple forms and bright colors conveyed the optimism of the new era, Dong’s portraits of prominent figures imbues the image with a sense of authority. Dong positioned Mao within a triangular space created by two receding diagonal lines. One follows the line of dignitaries and recedes into a vanishing point at the south gate of Tiananmen Square, while the other tracks the silk rug and marble balustrades in front of Mao. Although several of the Party officials pictured behind Mao were replaced or deleted in different versions of the painting during the tumultuous two decades that followed Dong’s original, this 1972 version shows all the figures as restored in a single composition. The uniformed figure General Zhu De (head of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) appears in the front row at the far left, with Premier and Foreign Minister Zhou Enlai and the Secretary General Lin Boqu behind him. Second from left is Liu Shaoqi, Mao’s heir who was later disgraced and removed from the painting, only to be restored again later. Madame Song Qingling (the widow of Sun Yatsen) is portrayed in a long qipao, and behind her is Guo Moruo, head of the Culture and Education committee. Next is the official Li Jishen, followed by the activist Zhang Lan—both joined Mao in forming the CCP. On the far right is General Gao Gang, who was later purged from the government and died by suicide; he was restored to the painting after the Cultural Revolution. Dong painted each portrait from individual photographs, and then assembled them in a believable, but idealized, image of the founding of the PRC. The painting itself had to be adjusted as its subjects—the figures in the painting—fell in and out of political favor, casualties of the turbulent era known as the Cultural Revolution. Their presence as a unified group minimizes the tragic realities of the time.
Lending a sense of familiarity to the inspirational subject, Dong merged a Chinese folk aesthetic with the European medium of oil painting. He built upon works including Xu Beihong’s Tian Heng and the Five Hundred Followers, a large-scale oil painting that similarly draws from the tradition of European history painting for its dramatic portrayal of a legendary hero.
At the same time, Dong used thick black outlines, and then filled them with flat, bright colors like those seen in the folk tradition of New Year’s pictures (nianhua 年华). Woodcuts, such as the revolutionary-era nianhua, People’s Prosperity by Gu Yuan, would be used to decorate Chinese homes during the Lunar New Year. Circulated widely as a print, Founding of the Nation was similarly suitable for decoration in the home, replacing the folk images that Mao believed to be superstitious and backward-looking with an image of a contemporary event that was nonetheless familiar in its visual simplicity and vibrant hues.
Painting in the Mao Era
Brimming with sunshine, smiles, and red ornaments (traditionally an auspicious color, signifying celebrations and new beginnings), Founding of the Nation exemplified a politically supported mode of painting during the Mao era, the period between the inauguration in 1949 and the start of the Cultural Revolution in 1966. Mao had laid out this direction for art at the Yan’an Forum on Literature and Art in 1942. First, he stated that art must serve politics and the masses. In other words, art should appeal to the provincial peasants in a common, understandable idiom; it should not appeal only to the tastes of the urban elite. Secondly, art should convey the positive aspects of life under the Communists. Whether painting, theater, or literature, art in the Mao era was clear in form and straightforward in meaning—it was an accessible, popular art that served the Communist Party’s agenda.
Founding of the Nation is a prime example of Chinese socialist realism, a style that specifically addressed the lives and work of China’s peasants, soldiers, and workers. Its bright colors, clear lines, and recognizable portraits characterized the work as an art for the people, one that resonated with their lives and aspirations for the nation under Mao’s leadership. Moreover, Dong’s portrayal of Mao and his circle in this grand-scale painting paved the way for propaganda in the years that followed. Portraits became increasingly common subjects for socialist realist paintings, constituting a sub-genre known as “Mao paintings,” or paintings that highlighted Mao’s history and political agenda. For instance, Liu Chunhua depicted Chairman Mao en Route to Anyuan in 1967, using socialist realism to convey the heroic nature of Mao as a young man, leading coal miners to strike. Dong’s portrayal of Mao atop Tiananmen Square similarly marked a pivotal moment in history, the beginning of Mao’s move to reshape popular culture to serve Party interests.
A Rapid Transformation of Art
Founding the Nation marks the rapid transformation of mainstream art into propaganda during the Mao era. There was little room for art forms beyond officially sanctioned works like Dong’s monumental painting, which became a model for artists in art schools throughout the country. The image circulated widely in print form, taking a prominent role in popular culture and exemplifying Mao’s vision of an art for the people.Regardless of which dignitaries were presented, they were always pictured smiling in approval of Mao’s leadership—laying bare his role in shaping a new visual world.
- Julie Andrews and Shen Kuiyi, The Art of Modern China (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2012).
- Fu Danni, “Reinventing ‘Nianhua,’ a Faded Chinese New Year Tradition,” Sixth Tone (February 16, 2018).
Originally published by Smarthistory, 01.25.2023, under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International license.