The Inaugural Ceremony for The New Nation was painted by Dong Xiwen, an artist who intended to show a fresh beginning for the People’s Republic of China under a new collection of leaders that focused on rebuilding the Chinese nation and providing the people with peace and prosperity. However, this intention was represented only in the original version of the painting. Over time, the painting was altered several times to match the narrative, which the Chinese government wanted to propagate and imprint in history. Furthermore, this canvas is an example of how the government uses art to rewrite the nation’s past and to determine which episodes the people of China and the rest of the world are supposed to remember. The Inaugural Ceremony for The New Nation, once a flawless and descriptive work of art has undergone changes at various stages to represent the dynamic social and political inclinations of the Chinese society.
The original Inaugural Ceremony for The New Nation (1952-1953)
The first version of the painting was made at a time when China was witnessing a new dawn. The country had been experiencing an endless turbulence due to the Japanese occupation, the civil wars, the warlord era and the economic collapse, and, therefore, people were craving peace and prosperity. The Chinese art scene included numerous supporters of the unified government, which promised to be a new lease of life for a population that desperately needed it. In fact, Dong Xiwen was a non-Communist who supported the government simply because it was unified and because it held a lot of promise for the nation that was simply tired of fighting. Moreover, the original painting depicted actual leaders, who comprised the unified government. Among them, there were such figures as Mao Zedong, General Zhu De, Gao Gang, Liu Shaoqi, Madam Song Qingling, Li Jishen, Zhang Lan, Zhou Enlai, Guo Moruwo, Dong Biwu and Lin Boqu. This painting is the most accurate image of the key figures, who were a part of the unified government of the New Nation.
Each individual mentioned above made a significant contribution to the new state of peace experienced by a nation at the time of the inauguration. Madam Song Qingling was the widow of Sun Yat-sen and thus she deserved to be in the picture despite being a woman. At that time, females in the Chinese culture were considered a second class, while men were accepted as natural leaders. When Dong Xiwen made the first painting, he carefully represented a situation in which he had lived. He survived through the wars and was a witness of the creation of the unified Chinese government. He knew each of these leaders based on their actions and contributions to the new government, and he even was acquainted with all the differences and agreements among this group of leaders. This fact was represented by the differences and similarities in the attires and facial expressions of the leaders in the first painting.
First correction of “The Inaugural Ceremony for The New Nation” (early 1954)
Just before the inauguration ceremony, which was depicted in the painting, one of Mao Zedong’s closest allies in the pre-unification era was accused of disloyalty and thus banished from the government. His name was Gao Gang, and he was quite a successful economic administrator with a prosperous past in the business sector. The reason why he was accused and punished remained a mystery. However, he is known for committing suicide shortly after being ostracized from the government he has helped to form. Such scenarios were not abnormal within any political contexts, except in China, such situations were eliminated from history. In fact, instead of appreciating Gao Gang’s contribution to the history of China, Mao Zedong decided to remove his former ally’s name from the history and his image from the painting. The task of ‘correcting history’ was given to the original painter Dong Xiwen, who simply replaced Gao Gang with a potted chrysanthemum. In fact, the replacement of a historical figure in a work of art aimed at commemorating a historical event and marking the figure’s contribution to history is considered an act of altering history. This deliberate act proves the unreliability of Chinese art as a tool for telling a story of China. Once Gao Gang’s image was ‘purged’ from a historical testimonial that was meant to remind the nation of their heroes who worked to liberate them after many years of a turbulent political climate, China’s history could no longer be entrusted to art and culture. The new government had the power and reserved the right to define the nation’s history as it saw fit. This first correction thus marked the beginning of the end of China’s art regarding its reliability within historical contexts.
Second Correction (1971)
In 1971, Dong Xiwen was battling cancer while the rest of China recovered from the Cultural Revolution. This information is symbolic in many ways. First, Dong Xiwen was an anti-communist who only supported the unified government because they were fighting the unrest and economic decadence, which the nation had had to go through before the PRC was established. Therefore, even during the Cultural Revolution, the artist did not support the Communist Party and its leaders. The fact that he was also ill at the time when he thought that the nation was getting redeemed (in reality it was in a complete chaos) indicated a level of connection between the artist and the nation. Dong Xiwen was a patriot, and he was suffering along with his people. It was after the Cultural Revolution that the artist was instructed to remove another pivotal figure from Chinese history by eliminating his image from the inauguration painting. Liu Shaoqi had been one of the most influential leaders in China before the Cultural Revolution. Since he was close to Mao, it was speculated that he was being groomed to take Mao’s position in the event of the ‘great leader’s’ demise or retirement, what was highly unlikely. However, Liu Shaoqi was also a political leader and a theorist. He was often vocal and bold enough to antagonize Mao especially in relation to government in the PRC. As a result, he was reviled and purged from Chinese history, thus necessitating the second correction on the painting. His image was eliminated from the inauguration painting many years after its creation. As for the artist, this act of correcting history to suit Mao’s desired narrative was becoming a norm, and he had no choice but to comply.
Third Correction (1972)
In 1972, Dong Xiwen was rather weak from his chemotherapy sessions, but Mao had another assignment for him concerning the rectification of history. This time, Mao wanted Lin Boqu removed from the inauguration painting. Not much was known about Lin Boqu except that he was a follower of SunYatsen and that he joined the Communist Party in 1921. By the time Mao ordered this new correction, Lin Boqu had already been dead for 12 years. This explains why Dong Xiwen was uneasy about making this alteration. Younger artists were called in to make the change, since Dong Xiwen passed on later that year. At this point, one would argue that the talented artist could no longer deal with the disgrace that was propagated, having his name on it. All the alterations were being made to the Chinese historical narrative at the whim of one leader, while the rest of the nation had no choice but to believe in the new history. This third correction can be seen as the point at which any art enthusiast will officially stop trusting the Chinese history. Purging was a common practice in the Soviet Union, where Stalinist ideologies called for the complete elimination of individuals, who were considered enemies of the government. Exiling people was not enough to Stalin and he opted to rewrite history and completely remove all memories of the ‘offender’ from the past of the nation. The same was happening in China, having significant implications on the credibility of Chinese art. Artists in China were now a part of the government’s desire to edit their history, where key people were appreciated for as long as they were in agreement with the leadership.
A few years after Dong Xiwen’s passing, Mao decided it was time for a final version of the Inaugural Ceremony for The New Nation. The fourth version of this painting was missing three key figures, and to a keen eye, the painting would appear unbalanced. It would take a few assessments to consider the painting incomplete, especially if one had seen the other works of Dong Xiwen. To stop all possible doubts that might lead to an investigation of the PRC history, Mao hired a team of young artists to create a new version of the painting in which the three missing figures were replaced by people who were absent at the original version. This final version is what is currently paraded as Dong Xiwen’s painting. China, along with the world, is being told to believe that it is the original work of the famous artist whose Chinese-Western style of painting is particularly endearing due to the level of details and emotions. The painting retained Dong Xiwen’s exquisite aura as some of his students created it, but it lacked the allure of truth.
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The truth is relative, or so it seems when it comes to the Chinese Communists who put pressure on Dong Xiwen every time they want to purge someone from Chinese history for antagonizing Mao. Dong Xiwen was not a communist regarding his ideologies. He was simply an artist who believed in the Chinese nation and wanted to help commemorate the birth of a great nation with one of the most exquisite paintings, which depicted the inauguration of the unified government of China. The number of changes that this particular painting has gone through affected not only its balance but also its reliability as a historical relic that can be used to commemorate Chinese history. Among other things, it can be appreciated that the past of this particular painting questions all narratives that the Chinese government have tried to propagate. The Communist government’s constant attempts at rewriting the past through the painting further emphasized the significance of art and culture in defining the country’s historical contexts.