How Mao shapes lives spent shaping Mao

Updated: 2011-12-13 07:41

By Kang Bing and Chen Liang (China Daily)

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 How Mao shapes lives spent shaping Mao

Busts and statues of Mao Zedong fill Wang Wenhai's home in Yan'an, Shaanxi province. Photos by Chen Liang / China Daily

There's no TV, no refrigerator and no washing machine.

The three-room apartment's furniture comprises just a handful of items, including a worn couch and two simple wood beds.

But the hostess, Wang Yanhua, is unhappy about such questions as, "Why does the apartment appear so empty?"

She responds: "We have Chairman Mao Zedong everywhere and don't feel our home is at all empty."

She's not kidding when she says Mao is everywhere in their home.

Several hundred clay busts and statues of New China's founding father inhabit her shelves, desks, windowsills and even the floor and the bed. The figurines are like Xi'an's Terracotta Army but all with Mao's face.

The walls are covered with the chairman's visage, too. He stares out from the collage of paintings, old posters and yellowed newspapers that cover the walls.

The Mao statues are the handiwork of the couple in Yan'an, Shaanxi province. An unfinished red-clay Mao is still taking shape in the center of the living room.

Creating these works enabled Wang Yanhua's husband, 61-year-old Wang Wenhai, to leave his job as a Yan'an Revolutionary Museum guide 20 years ago.

He now works for two leading contemporary art galleries in Beijing's 798 Art Zone. Some of his works have been collected by overseas museums and galleries. His work has earned him acclaim as "Yan'an's King of Clay Sculpting".

Wang Yanhua has, in turn, gone from being a rural housewife to becoming her husband's assistant.

The couple and their two sons moved from their 20-square-meter mud hut to their 70-sq-m apartment in 1995. They also have a 100-sq-m studio in Beijing's outskirts.

"The love of sculpting and Chairman Mao has truly changed our lives," Wang Wenhai says.

A start in art

How Mao shapes lives spent shaping Mao

Wang Wenhai was born in Henan province but grew up in Huanglong county, near Yan'an. Since childhood, he has admired Mao, who lived in Yan'an from 1935 to 1947.

His carpenter father supported him through junior high. Wang's teachers considered him outstanding at art.

After graduation, he taught at the village primary school for a year.

Wang Wenhai was the only Huanglong resident recommended by local officials when the museum came to the county to recruit for guide training in 1970.

He was told only outstanding students would be employed. He was one of 20 to get the job after a month of training. The other 50 didn't make the cut.

"My better grasp of Putonghua (standard Chinese) helped," Wang Wenhai recalls.

The Henan dialect he spoke at home was closer to Putonghua than Yan'an's.

Soon after, he was assigned to assist the country's masters to sculpt Mao and other revolutionary figures for the museum.

He found he had a knack for working with clay and went on to sculpt cats, dogs and roosters.

But he never dreamt of sculpting as anything more than a hobby until the Spring Festival of 1987.

On the traditional holiday, the husband and wife hauled a cart all the way to Mao's old home in Yangjiaping to dig clay out of the hills.

"My sculptor friends told me that only the clay there was suitable for sculpting," the lanky man with long gray hair recalls.

Wang Wenhai decided to sculpt Mao with the clay upon returning home.

"He was the person I knew best," he says. "Having been a museum guide for nearly 20 years, I had spent a long time in front of Mao's pictures and sculptures, and his features and expressions were engraved on my mind."

It took him just 30 minutes to complete his first rendering of Mao.

Wang Yanhua encouraged him to make the second and third likenesses. By the time he stopped - after midnight - he had created eight sculptures.

At first, Wang Yanhua only mixed clay. But her husband encouraged her to try her hand at sculpting, too. The results were delightful and even more vivid than her husband's, the couple recalls.

"I had the benefit of having tried traditional crafts like embroidery and paper-cutting when I was young," Wang Yanhua says.

The Wangs had finished about 100 sculptures of Mao by the time the holiday was over. They exhibited their works in their dormitory at the museum. The exhibition was staged year-round.

The Wangs' works became popular in Yan'an.

Wang Wenhai initially gave them to collectors for free and began selling them in the mid-1990s. "Many local businessmen and officials want my works as gifts," he explains.

In 2000, the couple's elder son went to college in Beijing, and Wang Wenhai felt it was time to head for the capital.

"The chairman left Yan'an for Beijing," Wang Wenhai says. "I just followed suit."

Trading spaces

In 2001, the family moved into an apartment in the capital's 798 factory district, which was rising as a hot spot for artists but not yet for visitors.

There, Wang Wenhai met Long March Space curator Lu Jie and the Xin Dong Cheng Space For Contemporary Art's curator and owner Xin Dongcheng. He began cooperating with the galleries and took influence from their work.

He went from creating only traditionally realistic portrayals of Mao to also rendering Surrealistic and Abstract likenesses. These include Mao as a sleeping Buddha and as a pillow.

In 2003, Wang Wenhai made the 3.4-meter-high sculpture Mao Zedong with Mao Zedong in Beijing's 798 Art Zone's Long March Space. It was his "gift to Mao" to commemorate his 110th birth anniversary. The work presents an older Mao standing next to his younger self.

While his works have become increasingly abstract and unconventional, he says he has never tried to "make Mao appear ugly".

"Everyone can imagine their own Mao," Wang Wenhai says. "I hope my works can help people better understand this great man."

He believes people should cherish Mao's ideals, especially of serving the people and keeping their interests at heart.

Wang Wenhai recalls "wanting to slap" a foreign reporter, who used "offensive words about Mao" when asking the sculptor his opinion about the late leader's life.

In June 2004, Mao Zedong with Mao Zedong was displayed in the Contemporary Art Museum in Lyon, France. His works have since been exhibited in, or collected by, overseas museums and galleries.

His small sculptures sell to individual buyers for several hundred yuan, while one of his bigger works went for more than 100,000 yuan ($15,000).

The couple used the money from the sale of nearly 2,000 Mao sculptures to buy an apartment in Beijing in 2007.

Wang Wenhai's next project, he says, is another Mao commissioned by a businessman from Henan province - that is, a 19-meter-long sleeping statue.

Ma Lie in Xi'an contributed to the story.

China Daily

 How Mao shapes lives spent shaping Mao

Wang Wenhai works on a statue of the former leader.

(China Daily 12/13/2011 page18)